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Does Anything Really Change after a Catastrophic Incident?

Editor's Note: Firehouse asked the author, who served as the incident commander at the Columbine High School shooting, to share his knoweldge and the lessons learned with the fire service following the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech.

Now that another tragedy has taken the lives of so many innocent victims at Virginia Tech, I am reminded of the words of Edward Lewis, who said "Define yourself by the best that is in you, not the worst that has happened to you." Despite the horrible tragedy that occurred this month, it seems clear that the people at Virginia Tech are working to define themselves by what is best in them. I have no doubt that they will be successful. But in the aftermath of the terrifying way in which these lives were lost, people also want to know why this happened, what can be done to be better prepared to respond to a large scale incident, and what can be done to prevent such a loss of life in the future.

It is well beyond my capability to even try to talk about why these things happen. Preventing such acts of violence is also well beyond by level of expertise, although it would be an interesting discussion about how the identity of the fire service would have to change in order for firefighters to become more involved in preventing acts of violence in their local community. But I do have some thoughts I would like to share about becoming better prepared to respond to large scale incidents.

Becoming better prepared to respond to large scale incidents starts with the recognition that every community has the potential for a catastrophic incident, one that overwhelms the capability of their local public safety agencies and first responders. In a small community, with a lower level of first response resources, it might take an incident involving a handful of deaths and a dozen injuries to overwhelm the capability of their fire, police, and emergency medical resources. In a larger community, with a larger level of available resources, it might take an incident involving dozens of people killed and hundreds wounded to reach the point where the local resources are not able to respond effectively to the incident.

Recognizing the latent potential in your community is the first step in becoming better prepared for an effective response. The latent potential for a catastrophic incident is the potential that is present but has not yet become active or openly manifest. It is imperative for first responders to recognize that the latent potential for a catastrophic incident is always present in every community. No matter what the cause, it is very possible that something might happen that will overwhelm your local response capability. The specific cause of the catastrophic incident matters less that the effect or impact of the incident in terms of the number of casualties or the amount of property damage that might occur so that you can recognize the point at which regional resources will be required for an effective response.

After a catastrophic incident occurs, many communities will examine and reevaluate their latent potential for a catastrophic incident. It seems that in most cases, people look over their individual response plans, make a few minor changes based on what happened at the latest tragedy, and then put the response plan back on the shelf. Very little, if anything, is changed after such reviews with regard to the fundamental structure and process of how first responders provide local services. The result is that the same latent potential for an ineffective response continues to be present, just waiting to become manifest in a catastrophic incident.

One reason that so little improvement occurs is that we look at our emergency response capability through a framework that limits our perspective and our opportunity for change. Emergency response services are provided at the local level, and the drivers for strategic policy decisions are usually related to the political, social, and economic needs of the local community. Making decisions about resources and response policy from a local perspective results in one set of outcomes. Making decisions from a regional perspective is likely to result in very different decisions in terms of how resources are organized and allocated. A regional perspective is also likely to result in improved outcomes in terms of the effectiveness of a regional response to a catastrophic incident. Therefore, the second step in becoming better prepared for catastrophic incidents is to know the limitations of our own local response capability, and to take action to develop and sustain an effective response capability on a regional basis.

As long as decisions about strategic response policy are based on a local perspective, the problems associated with a large scale response will continue. These problems include the following:

  • Resources will be underutilized rather than maximized.
  • Separate command structures will be created for each of the emergency services rather than one integrated and coordinated command and control system for the entire incident.
  • First responders will continue to have problems communicating with each other, resulting in low levels of situational awareness, a slow decision making process, and ineffective action based on inadequate information.

However, there is a short period of time after a catastrophic incident that provides a window of opportunity for collective action and change. That time is now. Take this time and use it for a hard and honest reflection of the strengths, weaknesses and limitations of your response capability. Compare your latent potential for a catastrophic incident against your local and regional response capability. Ask yourself this question: If a catastrophic incident occurred today in our community, and we had to rely on resources from around the region to provide an effective response capability, what would that look like? Would it be like herding cats, or would it be well organized? Would the structure and process of command and control between the various response agencies be coordinated and integrated, or would it be uncoordinated and disintegrated? How would the various response resources work together, and how would they communicate with each other? Can we do better?

All of these questions are related to the capability of the first response agencies in terms of command, control and communications. First responders are good at command, control and communications on a local level, which usually occurs within their own organization. It is apparent from the catastrophic incidents that have occurred over these last few years that we are not as good at developing these response capabilities on a regional basis.

Command, control and communications systems need to be integrated and coordinated on a regional basis rather than a local or jurisdictional basis. One way to accomplish this is to think of a regional response capability in terms of a functional distribution of resources. Most first response organizations think of the distribution of resources based on a vertical separation by jurisdiction or by type of first response agency, as in figure 1.

The different types of first response agencies depicted in figure 1 could also represent different jurisdictions of the same type of agency. For example, the figure could represent three different fire departments, or three different law enforcement organizations. Based on this structure, the response to incidents is purposely designed to be separate. Each type of first response agency or jurisdiction is designed to have a separate capability for command, control and communications.

A more effective and efficient way of organizing regional resources in preparation for a large scale response to a catastrophic incident is through a functional distribution. A functional distribution of resources is based on a common structure and process of command and control, as illustrated in figure 2.

In a functional structure, all of the first response agencies are integrated and coordinated through a common structure and process of command and control. During a catastrophic incident, several different jurisdictions or types of first response agencies may be represented in the command element. This might include representatives from fire, law enforcement, and EMS who come together to form a joint command staff. Regional resources are organized at the logistical level. These resources are then assigned to the operational element based on their capability and where they are needed and what tasks need to be accomplished as part of the overall incident action plan.

Communications resources would also be distributed based on function rather than jurisdiction. For example, if three jurisdictions each had five channels, then a total of 15 channels are available. If these channels were distributed by function, then the entire region might have two command channels, eight operations channels, and five logistics channels. If we went by the general rule of no more than 20 units on a single channel, then we could handle a total of 40 units on the command channels, 160 units on the operations channels, and 100 units on the logistics channels. A functional distribution of communications resources allows more units to communicate over more channels. The alternative under a jurisdictional based distribution of communications resources is that everyone on the response is trying to communicate on one or two channels, resulting in channel congestion and overload. As communications breakdown, so does the effectiveness of the emergency response.

When considering these issues and opportunities for change, it might be helpful to keep a variation of the quote from Edward Lewis in mind: "Define yourself by how well you are prepared for the worst that might happen to you." The worst that can happen to you is that something occurs in your community that is beyond the capability of your local first response resources. An effective response to a catastrophic incident begins with the recognition of latent potential, a realistic appraisal of your capabilities and limitations, and the development of a practical plan for an effective regional response to the incident.

If something catastrophic was to happen, and you needed help, where would that help come from? Make a list of those organizations and ask them to meet and talk with you about how you can be better prepared for a catastrophic incident. It is very likely that no one else in your department or in your region will take action to bring such a group together to talk about real change. The responsibility for creating a more effective response capability is yours. How will you choose to define yourself? Will you be defined by the way you have always done things in the past, or will you be defined by what you will be prepared to do in the future?


Chief Bill Pessemier spent 25 years in the fire service serving in a number of positions throughout his career, from firefighter to training officer to fire chief. Prior to his retirement as the fire chief in Littleton, CO, Bill was the incident commander for the fire and emergency medical response to the shootings at Columbine High School. Bill was appointed by James Lee Witt, past Director of FEMA, as a member of the America Burning Recommissioned Panel. In his role with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, Bill has recently written a handbook on interoperability titled: Top Priority: A Fire Service Guide to Interoperable Communications. Bill holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Illinois and is currently working on a Doctoral Degree in Public Affairs at the University of Colorado at Denver. You can contact Bill by e-mail at: bpessemier@iafc.org

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