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There has been some progress in preparing the fire-rescue service for its response to terrorism but it has been a series of small steps at a slow pace. And, when it comes to law enforcement and other agencies sharing essential information with fire chiefs, they still have a long way to go.
A positive sign is the recognition that firefighters are the first responders and responsible for rescue operations and the treatment of mass casualties that occur in a fire, explosion, hazardous chemical release, train wreck or any other disaster. It's obvious that a fire department is the only agency with the trained manpower, experience and equipment to cope with these incidents. A terrorist attack poses some unique and dangerous problems but, in many ways, it's not too different from other major disasters.
"If you're prepared to handle any kind of mass casualty incident, then you've taken a big step in preparing for a terrorist incident," says District Chief Robert Stephan, a hazardous materials specialist with the Montgomery County, MD, Fire & Rescue Service, "but if you cannot handle mass casualties, you won't be able to handle this." Clearly, fire departments have to take the initiative in planning and training for the response, incident command, mutual aid and mobilization of resources that may be needed to cope with a natural or, in the case of terrorism, a man-made disaster.
With the incidents that already have occurred, it's difficult to believe that most departments have not reviewed and updated their mass casualty plans. But fire officers working on the terrorism problem are concerned that there is a lack of training and awareness in some departments. Apparently, some have trouble believing that terrorists might strike in their city, despite the evidence that they will attack anywhere they can find a vulnerable or symbolic target. Their aim is to send a message by causing massive damage and killing a lot of people including the fire-rescue personnel who respond.
That is one of the ways in which the response to a terrorist incident is different from the "normal" disaster response. It hasn't happened in the United States but in other countries the bombers often have planted a secondary device timed to go off after fire-rescue forces have arrived on the scene. Firefighters have to be aware that terrorists may set them up to become targets.
There is a special concern about toxic chemical attacks. An important lesson learned from the Tokyo subway gas attack is the critical need to alert fire-rescue personnel with an early warning of what they're dealing with. First responders have to be wearing their breathing apparatus going in and protective clothing has to be quickly available to everyone on the scene not just the hazmat team. An all-purpose suit has been developed that costs less than $100. These would be kept in ready reserve to be rushed to the scene as soon as it's known that a major toxic chemical incident has occurred. It's also clear that no city has the hazmat capacity to handle an incident of this magnitude by itself; help is going to be needed from other departments and the military's chemical warfare units.
"We're better prepared to deal with bombings but a chemical attack is something else ... Awareness training for fire-rescue personnel is a key element," says Garry Briese, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. The National Fire Academy is ready to release its terrorism training course for first responders. Along with the lesson plan, there will be videotapes available to every fire department. Legislation passed by the last Congress provides more than $200 million in funds for law enforcement and other agencies to defend against terrorism. But only $5 million was earmarked for the fire-rescue service, to be shared between 120 metropolitan departments.
The Northeastern States Fire Consortium, an alliance of fire officials in 10 states, has called for Congress to provide more money for the Fire Academy's training programs. Another $15 million to $20 million in funds and equipment may be available from the Department of Defense but the military still has to be convinced of the key role played by the fire-rescue service. It also will depend on the fire organizations working together and agreeing on what's needed and what the priorities should be. If the fire service fails to present a united front, most of this money could wind up in the hands of private consultants (known as "beltway bandits") who specialize in getting lucrative contracts from the Pentagon.
More than a half-dozen federal agencies are involved in the anti-terrorism effort. At this point, only slight progress has been made in getting some of them to share information with fire departments. When federal authorities raided a militia group that had stockpiled weapons, ammunition and explosives, the local fire chief learned about it while watching a television newscast. If anything had gone wrong, the first the fire department would have known was when the alarm came in for an explosion and fire.
The fire service has to be aggressive in asserting its proper role in the chain of command. No matter what the incident may be, local fire departments are on the front lines in the war against terrorism. It is essential that they have all the information, training and equipment that's needed to carry out their part of the mission which is saving lives. But it won't happen unless the fire leadership presents a united front and takes the initiative in preparing for terrorist attacks that can strike any place at any time.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the ABC News political director and served many years as a volunteer firefighter.