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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  • Listen.
  • Be calm and courteous.
  • Do not interrupt the caller.
  • Obtain as much information as possible.
  • Initiate call-trace action.

The caller may be the person who placed the bomb, someone who knows the bomber or a witness to the device. Gathering information about the caller can help identify that person. It is important that the call taker identify as much information about the caller as possible. Information should include: sex; estimated age; accent; voice volume; speech; diction; and manner.

Nuclear threats, especially bombs, do not have a lot of credibility. The U.S. Department of Energy operates a Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST), headquartered at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, which should be called, in addition to the FBI, for any nuclear threat.

Anthrax threats have become the bomb threat of the 21st century. Threats have included: telephone calls; mailed letters and packages; items left in buildings; powder left on building surfaces and air handling systems; and notes written on walls. Anthrax is a biological agent that could be used by terrorists to further their cause. Because anthrax is such a credible threat, all reports should be taken seriously. Response should be within local guidelines for anthrax threats. However, consideration should be given to FBI guidelines, which suggest a low-key response.

Every one of the dozens of anthrax threats that have occurred across the country has been a hoax. Nonetheless, response personnel were tied up for hours; businesses were disrupted; traffic was disrupted; citizens underwent decontamination; antibiotics were administered to "victims"; and the cost to taxpayers was in the tens of thousands of dollars. The threat of anthrax is real, but the terrorist does not have to have anthrax to cause disruption of the daily lives of citizens and create fear among the population; just saying you have anthrax can further the cause of a terrorist.

A big lesson learned from the anthrax hoaxes is to avoid overreacting. Evacuation of large numbers of people may not be necessary if the material is not in an air-handling system. Anthrax is not contagious from person to person, so quarantine is not required. All emergency responders should wear respiratory protection. Decontamination is only done for the peace of mind of those near the material. Only soap and water should be used, not chlorine bleaches. Antibiotics should not be administered unless there is a positive test result for anthrax. Samples of the material should be taken and submitted to a laboratory for testing.

Nearly every fire, EMS and law enforcement response has the potential for hazardous materials to be present. Terrorism incidents occur on a less frequent basis, but can present challenges to the emergency response system nonetheless. Call takers should use their knowledge and training to determine, based on the caller's information, more specific information about hazardous materials and terrorist agents, which may be present. This information should be passed on to emergency responders to assist them in the mitigation of the incident. Working together, call takers and emergency responders play a critical role in determining the successful outcome of hazmat and terrorist emergencies.


Robert Burke, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland. He is a certified Hazardous Materials Specialist, and has served on state and county hazmat response teams. Burke is a veteran of over 18 years in the fire service, in career and volunteer fire departments, having attained the ranks of lieutenant and assistant chief, and served as deputy state fire marshal. He has an associate's degree in fire protection technology and a bachelor's degree in fire science, and is pursuing a master's degree in public administration. Burke is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy. He is the author of the books Hazardous Materials Chemistry For Emergency Responders, published in 1997, and Counter-Terrorism For Emergency Responders, published in 1999. Burke can be reached on the Internet at robert.burke@worldnet.att.net.