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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Terrorists are looking for targets that are vulnerable. Locations where little preparation or security is provided "soft targets" are prime locations for terrorism. Terrorists look for public and government buildings, those with law enforcement or Internal Revenue Service offices, infrastructure such as power plants, tunnels and bridges, water treatment plants and hospitals, to name a few. Places with high economic impact, such as university research or medical facilities, financial institutions, the stock market or commodities exchange could be targets. Telecommunications facilities, transmission towers, mass transit systems, and places with historical or symbolic significance may also be targeted.

Government agencies provide critical services to the public, water supply, electricity in some cases, emergency services, environmental protection, heath services, and many others. Much of our infrastructure is government related, constructed or maintained. There are many government buildings including schools, legislative, and administrative offices the terrorist may take issue with. Not all government agencies are popular; court systems, tax collection, probation, and others could be targeted.

"Decision Trees"

Hazmat and terrorist incidents do not happen on a regular basis. Call takers may become rusty with procedures because of lack of use. "Decision trees" (or flow charts, as they are sometimes called) can be useful in helping dispatchers determine what resources are needed and what questions too ask of the caller. Decision trees are excellent tools for assisting dispatchers in determining what resources to allocate to an emergency call. They differ from one community to another depending on the local resources.

A decision tree starts with a decision that needs to be made. In the case of emergency response, it is what resources need to be dispatched for certain types of hazardous materials and terrorist incidents.

Decision tree construction steps are:

  1. Determine decision to be made.
  2. Ask questions that will lead to a decision.
  3. Describe actions that will take place.
  4. Determine when the process has ended.

Decisions may also be determining what type of incident has occurred. Decision trees can be constructed to assist the call taker in determining if a hazardous material is present or if a terrorist incident has occurred.

In order to come to any appropriate decision, you need to ask the proper questions. Take the time to make sure the questions asked would lead to the answer you are looking for. If not, you will need to revise the questions. Questions should eventually lead to actions. Based upon the information you collect from the caller and feed into the decision tree, you should be able to come up with an appropriate determination of the type of emergency and dispatch the appropriate resources. While this may all sound complicated, it's easy once you work through a few sample decision trees.

Prepared checklists can also be useful in prompting for information to ask the caller. No one can remember all of the right things to ask. Having a checklist expedites the call taking while still obtaining the information that will benefit the emergency responders. Taking calls for hazardous materials and terrorist incidents can be remarkably different.

The use of decision trees and checklists can be beneficial for dispatchers in determining what questions to ask of the caller. Call takers should get detailed information concerning the location or facility where an incident has taken place. Even if hazardous materials are not involved in an incident, response personnel should know if there are hazardous materials on the scene or in the facility. The dispatcher has the first and best opportunity to obtain this information through the questions he or she asks. Even if the presence of hazardous materials cannot be confirmed, the dispatcher should remind responders of the potential and to be on the lookout. If possible, the caller should be asked to wait at a certain location to meet responders. First-hand information from the caller can confirm information forwarded by the dispatcher.

Real Threat Or Hoax?

Generally, threat incidents are hoaxes and no bomb, chemical, biological or nuclear material is found. If anything is found, it turns out to be a benign material or device. Just the same, incidents have occurred involving explosive materials or devices where the device or material was real and an explosion occurred.

All threats should be taken seriously and responded to according to local emergency plans. Over 70% of all terrorist incidents involve explosives or explosive devices. Some of the important procedures for the call taker to follow include: