Preparing Dispatchers For Hazmat & Terrorist Emergencies

Dispatchers and 911 operators are usually the first to receive notification of any type of emergency that occurs in the community. They may be talking with the person who is a victim of an incident, a witness to what happened or even the perpetrator...


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Dispatchers who obtain the proper information or fail to recognize when the potential for hazardous materials or terrorism is present can mean the difference between a successful outcome and a disaster. Fire departments respond to many emergency medical calls on a daily basis. Dispatchers and 911 operators should be alert for unusual events. Multiple medical calls from different locations or multiple victims exhibiting similar symptoms may indicate an unusual problem. A mass-casualty incident where no trauma has occurred is also unusual and should be recognized by the dispatcher as an unusual event. A report of an explosion with little damage is also a "red flag."

News Media Responses

Call takers should be familiar with information that would indicate a potential terrorist incident. News media listen to dispatch frequencies to get a heads-up on emergency incidents in the community. Dispatchers should be prepared to field calls from the media about what has happened, the local response, any deaths or injuries, whether an evacuation is taking place and whether anyone in the community is threatened.

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Photo by Robert Burke
Emergency dispatchers who are knowledgeable about identification tools such as placards, labels, and container shapes and sizes can ask questions that will elicit valuable information from callers.

The location of an event can be helpful information in terms of potential exposures and response difficulties. Is the emergency a transportation event or is a fixed facility involved? Call takers should extract as much information as possible about the location and surrounding exposures, topography, rural vs. urban setting, population exposures etc. Time of day or day of week can be important in terms of weather stability, effect on vapor clouds, traffic flow and population densities. Did the incident just happen, or was there a delay in reporting? Are multiple calls about the incident or multiple calls with different locations being received? What type of event occurred - fire, explosion, vehicle accident, medical emergency, natural disaster, criminal act, act of terrorism or chemical release?

Fires can result in explosions, and explosions can cause fires. If an explosion has occurred, a secondary device could be present. The dispatcher should alert responders to potential secondary devices. Natural disasters as well as criminal and terrorist acts can result in the release of hazardous materials. Once again, the information the call taker extracts from the person reporting the incident is critical in determining what has occurred. Incidents involving hazardous materials can be accidental or criminal acts. Terrorist events are almost always criminal acts.

How the incident happened can provide responders with information about what they may face when they arrive. Was the incident an accident or was it intentional? Incidents can also happen as a result of negligence.

Developing plans, SOPs and providing training for dispatchers are key if an incident outcome is to be successful. The role of the dispatcher is critical and should not be overlooked or underestimated. Identifying incident levels can assist responders and dispatchers in determining what resources will be required to handle an incident:

  • Level I incidents are small scale and may be handled by the first responders with one company. It is not likely evacuation will be necessary and injuries are unlikely unless it is a vehicle accident.
  • Level II incidents are larger, requiring multiple companies, the hazmat team and, depending on the department's size, mutual aid. Evacuations or sheltering in place is likely to occur. There may be injuries or even deaths.
  • Level III incidents are catastrophic community emergencies. They are well beyond the local ability to deal with them. Large evacuations will be likely and may be for an extended period of time. State and federal resources may be required. Injuries and deaths are likely.

Resource Contacts

Developing resource contacts for various incident levels can streamline the notification process. Once an incident has been identified as a hazmat or terrorist incident, responders should request the resources needed to bring the emergency safely under control. Dispatchers will be making the notifications and should have SOPs and copies of local emergency plans in order to contact the appropriate resources. Those agencies that need to be notified should be outlined in the plan. These include local, state and federal agencies and private industry.