Big Things Do Happen In Small Fire Departments

Steve Meyer describes the aftermath of the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11 outside a Pennsylvania community of 250 people.


Sept. 11, 2001, conjures up myriad gut-wrenching memories for Americans - and we in the fire service in particular. On that dreadful day, while the eyes of the world were focused on the two disasters that took place in our nation's largest city and the seat of our country's power, another...


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As is normally noted following any major incident, communications were a problem initially. The dispatch center for Shanksville serves four counties. Operations channels quickly filled with interference. Shaffer said some agencies were also on different frequencies without the capabilities of interfacing. Those problems were resolved with the resource center set up by the local EMA and communications equipment brought in by other agencies.

No Place Is Immune

The crash of Flight 93 can undoubtedly be viewed as a big-city incident that happened in small-town America. The crash stands as vivid proof that no area of our country is immune from "the big one." Disasters, either manmade or natural, can happen anywhere, even in the smallest of fire districts. On a contemporary note, with the acts of renegade terrorists a locus of attention, few, if any, fire districts can consider themselves immune from the threat of terrorism. Contamination of a food or water supply by terrorists is a big concern among government officials and the fact that much of our nation's food supply is produced in rural areas protected by small fire departments makes disaster management even more significant to the small fire department.

History has shown that remote areas are those that terrorists seek out for preparatory activities connected with their devious acts. The "Unabomber," Ted Kaczynski, built his mail bombs in a secluded area of mountainous Montana. Timothy McVeigh tested and built his deadly bomb used on the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in a remote area also.

Given that an incident of the magnitude experienced by Shanksville can happen anywhere, there are 10 points every small fire department and community must consider in preparation for successful management of a disaster: establish what constitutes a disaster, incident management systems, emergency management systems, your jurisdiction's responsibility, personnel, dealing with the media, training, preparation, logistics and communications

Establish what constitutes a disaster. There is a scalar relationship in determining what would be considered a disaster. Though an airline crash anywhere in the United States would be determined a disaster, a disaster on a local level can be viewed as any incident that overwhelms local resources. To determine at what point an incident is declared a disaster, local emergency response capabilities need to be assessed. How many fire and ambulance crews can you place on scene in five minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes? How many victims can local medical facilities manage?

For many rural and small jurisdictions, an emergency with a dozen victims becomes a mass-casualty incident and a disaster. You could have that many casualties just from a bad accident. The first step is disaster management is defining what constitutes a disaster in your jurisdiction, then planning accordingly.

Incident management systems. Operating without a system of incident management is the second disaster following the disaster. Information and education about incident management systems and their use have saturated the fire service in recent decades. There isn't a fire department in this country that hasn't been exposed to information about incident management systems. Use of an incident management system is not an option. From a safety and operational effectiveness standpoint use of an incident management system is mandatory.

Use of incident management systems is not just for "the big one." If the system is pulled off the shelf and implemented only on the rare but large incident, its application will be cumbersome at best. When used on every incident, no matter how small, application of the system on the largest, most unimaginable disaster becomes easier.

In setting up and establishing an incident management system for a disaster, size-up is critical. Obtain a thorough assessment of the situation and the whole big picture before diving in. Firefighters are Type A, action-oriented, we-want-to-help-right-now kind of people. In the overwhelming specter of a disaster it's easy to lose sight of the fact that there may be something nasty in the air or on the ground, or something that could collapse and further compound the disaster by injuring or killing emergency responders. A thorough size-up is also critical to establishing the amount and level of additional resources that will be needed.