A Wake-Up Call For America's Firefighters

While a start has been made in preparing the fire-rescue service to deal with terrorism, progress has been painfully slow. The federal government's effort to help local fire departments has been hampered at times by inadequate funding, a lack of coordination and an unrealistic view of the critical role played by first responders. The bottom line is that two years after Oklahoma City, some fire departments are not any better prepared to cope with a terrorist incident than they were before that disaster.

This tough appraisal comes from fire-rescue officers who have been involved in the federal programs. At the same time, several are quick to point out that the initial barriers and misinformation have been overcome on all sides and there is good reason to believe that the new year will see more fire departments getting the training, equipment and other resources that only the federal government can provide.

"It's all breaking new ground and it had to take time, because there are no easy answers," says one chief who has been involved from the start. He points out that the Department of Defense (DOD), one of the key federal agencies, had no previous experience in dealing with local fire departments and no understanding of how they operate. "There was a complete misinterpretation of the help that was needed. We had to educate them before they could educate us," he explains.

The first contact between the military and the fire service was a near disaster. DOD officials were shocked by the angry reaction that came from fire officers when they heard army officers talking about "acceptable casualties" in a terrorist attack. "There's no such thing as 'acceptable' civilian casualties when we respond to an alarm and there are no 'acceptable risks' for our firefighters," a fire chief declared. "It may be OK for a general to lose some of his troops, but a fire chief cannot accept the loss of any firefighters."

That message was delivered in blunt, firehouse language by the fire-rescue leaders. The proposed pilot program was dumped after the chiefs pronounced it totally unacceptable and unrealistic in terms of a fire department's responsibility in any life-threatening situation whether it's a fire, accident, natural disaster or terrorist attack.

To its credit, the Army made an effort to learn how the fire-rescue service operates and they were im-pressed. A new approach recognized the vital role of first responders and adapted to existing fire and EMS organizations. Most importantly, they brought in experienced fire officers to be part of the instructional teams, which now include firefighters who have special expertise in incident command, search and rescue, hazardous materials and EMS mass-casualty operations.

The training program administered by the Army's Biological Defense Command is aimed at reaching the 120 largest fire departments and has drawn good reviews from those who have received it. However, it doesn't go far enough in providing equipment and many believe it should be expanded to include smaller, volunteer departments that may respond on mutual aid to a terrorist incident. That was one of the themes at a congressional hearing held last month by the House National Security subcommittee on the federal response to terrorism.

Chairman Curt Weldon (R-PA) and others emphasized the importance of concentrating on the first hours of a terrorist incident, when a fire department will face mass casualties from a bombing, chemical or biological attack. The military has its own elite units to deal with this, but they cannot be mobilized and transported fast enough to help firefighters and EMS personnel in the short time frame when lives can still be saved. Their training, skill and equipment are impressive, but by the time they reach most parts of country, it will be a body-bag and mopping-up operation. The challenge is to get that same training and equipment in the hands of the first responders.

While the fire service and the military are now talking the same language out in the field, there is some doubt whether the Pentagon's top brass fully understands the role of first responders. The same is true of federal law enforcement. Fire officers and FBI field agents are cooperating, but there is concern that FBI headquarters still views a terrorist incident as primarily a crime scene, in which search and rescue is a secondary priority. In the real world, both operations must be coordinated and carried out simultaneously.

There have been disturbing rumors that the Pentagon eventually intends to give the National Guard prime responsibility for response to terrorist attacks, with state Guard officers controlling how and where the money and equipment will be distributed. When asked about this at the hearings, DOD officials would not give specific answers, except to say that the National Guard at some point would be integrated into the program. That part makes sense, but the thought of the Guard being in charge brings a chill to the fire-rescue service; it is an idea that cannot be allowed to get off the ground.

Inherent in all of this is the urgent need for fire departments to prepare for the possibility of a terrorist incident. Those that already have first-class hazmat operations and emergency medical services that can handle mass casualties have taken essential steps in the right direction. But those who have done nothing and still have the attitude that "it can't happen here" are ignoring reality. If they don't wake up, a good effort will be wasted and a lot of people could die.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a political analyst with ABC News in Washington and served many years as a volunteer firefighter.