Are We On The Right Road?

In the June issue, I wrote a Chief Concerns column titled "The Right Road" that raised the question of whether or not we in the U.S. fire service are taking the right initiatives as a result of the terrorist attacks which occurred last year. I also made the statement that I believe we should send delegations to Israel and Ireland to study their methods in regard to handling these types of incidents.

Over the past year, the federal government has allocated money for the fire service to better prepare itself for the problems associated with attacks by terrorists, both foreign and domestic. This was done because of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the anthrax incidents.

Almost immediately, the course of action for spending this money was to put it directly to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) incidents. This appears to be especially true for "suitcase nukes" and chemical and biological weapons. Training programs have been hastily developed or expanded. All forms of testing equipment were put on the market as the fire service rushed to spend the money. Many, many tabletop and mock exercises have been conducted throughout the country to test our perceived capabilities. The question remains: Are we doing the right things to better prepare ourselves?

I commanded an incident on the Mall in Washington, D.C. involving over 100,000 supporters of Israel and its actions in the Middle East. It was a hot day in early June in the nation's capital. The Special Operations Unit had developed a plan for protecting these people in the event of an emergency. At around noon, with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity somewhere around 80%, the crowd began succumbing to the effects of the sun. When I arrived on the scene we had 300 people on the ground and more going down every minute.

I immediately went into a Unified Command Structure and requested mutual aid units from the surrounding jurisdictions. We have over 250 firefighters and paramedics on duty, but we still needed assistance. After establishing multiple command sites and receiving great support from all involved agencies, we were able to mitigate the incident in about three hours.

This wasn't terrorism, but the sun. Would you have factored in weather as a threat? Shortly thereafter, the American Jewish Congress sponsored my trip to Israel.

While In Israel, I was given full access to all facets of emergency preparedness. I met with the military, heads of fire, police and EMS agencies, hospitals and their equivalent of our urban search and rescue (USAR) teams.

These were not "canned" tours, but full access to the principal parties. The chiefs were candid with me and responded to all of my questions. I toured the site of the bombing at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The damage was extensive from the effects of the bomb, which had consisted of Centex, marbles, and nuts and bolts. Any humans in its path were cut in two. The shrapnel could have cut leather as if it were paper. While I was in Israel, a 1,600-pound car bomb was detonated. Two other bombs were discovered at the home of a previous prime minister and also detonated.

Every official I spoke with emphasized that during these incidents speed of response is not and I repeat not the order of the day. Instead of first responder reconnaissance units or firefighter bomb detectors, they use dogs for establishing the perimeter. When the dogs have established a safe zone, then the members of fire, police and EMS agencies enter the area to treat those who were unable to self evacuate. They have come to appreciate that the bad guys are just as willing to kill the rescuers as the victims, perhaps more so.

What did I learn that I can share? First, I believe that we should employ dogs and robots more. Meters cost thousands of dollars and require humans to operate them. They are usually one-shot or one-dimensional meters. How many dogs do you have? How many personnel do you want to risk?

Second, our culture will kill us. We are so ingrained to be aggressive that we are highly susceptible to secondary devices. No matter how many times the topic is mentioned, I feel the outcome will be the same as our approach to trusses.

A Unified Command Structure for management is paramount. If this term is foreign to you, contact the folks at the National Fire Academy for assistance. Many entities are needed. If you are resource poor, call for help early. I hate to think what Arlington, VA, would have done at the Pentagon with its 40 officers and firefighters on duty at the time of the terrorist attack. I'm just glad we in D.C. were able to send more than 200 firefighters, officers and command chiefs with 30 pieces of apparatus to their aid over a 36-hour span.

You need to bring the hospitals and other agencies into the loop early for plan development. You may have a mass-casualty event and not be able to treat the victims. Know your capabilities. I've never seen a tabletop exercise fail. Never, never allow one or two people to write your standard operating procedures (SOPs). It needs to be a cooperative team effort. Staging and resource management become more important than the position of operations early on. If you don't manage them, they will overwhelm you. No freelancing or lack of accountability can exist. Discipline will mean the difference between live rescuers and dead ones believe me. Communications can quickly break down. Prepare to provide runners if necessary.

The most significant point still is slow down. You can spend all of your precious money on gadgets, but may still end up killing your people. We have many enemies both domestic (any psycho with a cause) and foreign. I still need to get to Ireland, but I can now say factually we have a long way to go. Let's talk with each other to get on the right track. Stay safe!

Michael L. Smith, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 29-year veteran of the District of Columbia Fire Department, currently deputy chief/suppression and shift division commander, commanding all fire, EMS, hazmat, special operations and special events activities in the District on shift. He is a 30-plus-year fire service veteran and is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officers Program at the National Fire Academy. Smith is a Certified Municipal Manger (CMM) from George Washington University; and holds degrees in fire science, construction management and labor law.