As law enforcement agencies develop their ability to respond to hazardous materials incidents, it is essential that local fire and police departments cooperate and establish guidelines that clearly define each department’s role and responsibilities. And, if fire departments want to continue to be the prime responders on hazmat emergencies, they had better make sure that their hazmat teams are properly funded and have all of the equipment, staffing and training that are required to do the job.
The threat of biological or chemical terrorist attacks has prompted law enforcement agencies to start training and equipping their personnel with protective clothing and some basic hazmat tools. It makes sense that police officers, who arrive on the scene of an incident along with first-due firefighters, should have the masks and suits that will prevent them from becoming victims. While firefighters are charged with making the rescues and dealing with the cause and conditions that created a dangerous situation, the police have critical roles to play by sealing off the area to prevent more casualties, assisting survivors and starting the criminal investigation. Obviously, a hazmat incident caused by an act of terrorism is a crime scene and the police take charge once the fire-rescue and EMS missions have been accomplished.
Fire officials acknowledge that the police need to have their own hazmat protection in order to operate within the danger zone. But there is some concern about the amount of equipment being purchased with federal aid and an undercurrent of suspicion that some police agencies may intend to take over as primary hazmat responders.
There is no evidence of that happening at this time. An informal survey conducted by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) did not reveal any fire departments that felt threatened by police moving into the hazmat field.
“It is my belief that many police departments are requesting grants to enable them to operate in a hazard zone to do their job of police work,” said Chief John Eversole, retired commander of special operations for the Chicago Fire Department and chairman of the IAFC’s hazmat committee. However, he adds, “If there is an organized fire department operation for hazardous materials, we do not need to worry; but where the fire service is weak, the police will consume these operations.”
While things have improved since the terrorist attacks of 2001, there still are local governments that have failed to properly fund and support their hazardous incident response teams. Hazmat is an expensive proposition and it can’t be done on the cheap. It requires a lot of money to equip a hazmat company and staff it with firefighters who have been trained to the basic and advanced levels. In a rural area, several towns or counties may have to pool their resources to organize a regional team within their mutual aid agreements. They’ll quickly discover that it’s not easy to find career and volunteer firefighters who are willing or able to put in the extra time required for hazmat training. In this risky business, an ill-equipped, under-manned or poorly trained hazmat team can be more dangerous than having no unit at all.
Some departments have resisted organizing hazmat teams on the grounds that they are costly and rarely needed. But experience has shown that deadly hazmat incidents can happen anywhere – in the middle of a big city, on a suburban beltway or interstate highway, and a small rural town. Trains and trucks carrying dangerous cargoes don’t care when they derail or roll over and there have been acts of sabotage against railroads, bridges and buildings in remote desert and high mountain regions. When it comes to terrorism, major population centers are the prime targets, but no place is immune. Even without the terrorist threat, we are surrounded by hazardous materials and every fire department, large or small, must have the capacity to deal with hazmat incidents.
In most jurisdictions, the fire and police departments work well together. But there are places where they fail to communicate or constantly squabble because of a grudge that began so long ago no one can remember how it started. All of that has to end. This is a time for cooperation and teamwork, with fire and police keeping each other informed while planning, training and working together, not only to meet the threat of terrorism, but to cope with the potential hazmat disasters that face us every day.
On a personal note, I want to thank Chief Dennis Compton for the excellent job he did writing this column for the past three issues while I was recovering from bypass surgery. I also want to thank all of my friends in the fire-rescue service for your good wishes and cheers at a time when I needed some cheering up. This really is a family and I feel proud and lucky to be a part of it.
I’m making a strong recovery, despite my constant craving for chicken-fried steak with white country gravy (which I’m forbidden to have). Finally, I want to urge all of you, if you ever feel the symptoms we learned about in CPR class, do what I did – call 911 and give those firefighters and paramedics, doctors and nurses a chance to save your life.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.