The Terrorist Curse And Planning For The Worst

As late, I have been blessed, or as I like to think, cursed, with the job of preparing our firefighters for a response to a terrorist event. With that job the curse part will readily become apparent. As I am writing this, I have to laugh at the subtle change that has taken place in my life over the past several years.

I work for the City of Miami Fire Rescue Department, as the special operations chief. I am entrusted with being the coordinator for the Hazardous Materials Team, Dive Rescue Team, Technical Rescue Team and SWAT paramedics. Needless to say, my plate is rather full. To compound this job, I have inherited the responsibility for terrorism response training as well. In fact, in the past two years, this last part is the dominant force in my life.

Because of the many things to consider when discussing, and most important preparing for the terrorist event, I have attended many interesting schools and training sessions. I have been to classes on chemical and biological weapons, nuclear emergencies schools and most recently I completed the "Response to Terrorist Bombings" course at New Mexico Technical University's Energetic Materials, Research Testing Center. This school especially has made a profound change in the way I view explosives, bombs and their effects.

Because we are inundated every day with terrible news of the many crises all over the world (including here in the U.S.), we have to think about where we are heading. As first responders we will be the first on the scene of one of these tragedies. As the primary resource in a terrorist event we must be aware of all the things happening around us.

We have looked at chemical and biological weapons. We have examined the antidotes for nerve agents and medical procedures for their victims. I hope at least that our EMS crews have these on board and have been trained in their use. We must be able to recognize when and when not to administer these medications, which at best are limited. We must think of the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to be used. We must realize there will be times when a lack of specialized training may prevent us from responding safely, even though we know you should, but are limited because of the scope of the operation, and resources at hand. Emotion must never overrule good sense. We must know our limitations.

During the "Response to Terrorist Bombings" course, we had the privilege of learning from some of the best instructors I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. One of them was John Clark, a retired lieutenant in the Oklahoma City Police Department. He gave a case study on the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in 1995. He presented the events of that horrible day, explaining what happened, where he was, and how it unfolded from a first responder's point of view. His presentation had me riveted, and hanging on every word. As I listened, I thought about what I had seen that day, thought about what I would have done, and how I would have reacted emotionally and professionally. I found myself listening through tear-swollen eyes, and trying to possibly feel what he must have felt. As I became more and more involved in this case study, he said, calmly and professionally, "Gentlemen and ladies, you MUST not let your emotions overrule your good common sense. You have a job to do. Do not get emotionally involved." That was one of the most powerful points I have ever seen put across, and magnificently done.

The terrorist curse is there and it should be a blessing in disguise. As chiefs, it keeps us on our toes, and should inspire us to plan for the worst. First responders, and especially command officers, must mentally prepare for any and all contingencies before they occur. We must anticipate future problems and events, plan for them and properly prepare our firefighters.

Chief Concerns is a forum addressing issues of interest to chief fire officers. Opinions expressed are those of the writer. We invite all volunteer and career chief fire officers to share their concerns, experiences and views in this column. Please submit articles to Chief Concerns, Firehouse Magazine, 445 Broad Hollow Road, Melville, NY 11747.

Chief Michael J. Essex is special operations officer for the Emergency Response Division of City of Miami Fire-Rescue. The division includes the technical rescue, hazardous materials and dive rescue teams. Essex also is the department's SWAT-Medic commander.