The Right Road

Months have passed since the terrorist attacks of September. Much rhetoric has been espoused regarding the next wave of attacks and where we should spend the money given to us to prepare for terrorism.

I find it more than a little troubling that the talk regarding our priorities centers mostly on weapons of mass destruction (WMD). These weapons are considered by many to be biological, chemical or dare I say nuclear. Well, before you run out and buy enzyme kits, let me talk to you about reality.

Let's look at two of the most prolific and active sites of terrorism: Northern Ireland and the Middle East. Struggles have been going on there for some time. The members of the fire and EMS services in these areas have been on the front lines during the whole time. The frequency of attacks over the years makes ME think that these members of the worldwide fire family are the true experts in this field.

Not being a professional researcher, but nonetheless able to read and discern facts, I submit that the chosen WMD is explosives and the chosen delivery system is fanatics willing to die for their cause as long as it takes out as many civilians and emergency workers as possible. (Even the attacks on 9/11 were a demonstration of explosives - fuel - delivered in a container - aircraft - by fanatics willing to die.)

The fire and EMS departments in areas where these terrorists have struck have protocols and SOPs already developed and I don't hear about the main alphabet groups in our services (fire and EMS) sending delegations over there to study what has already been accomplished. I feel that there is where the answers lie, not in the hands of trainers or gurus, usually self proclaimed to reinvent the wheel with little or no actual combat experience.

For many departments that are already shortstaffed and underequipped, even planning for mitigating this type of event can be cruel. I took a nerve agent training class. I watched helplessly as team after team took on the Herculean task of mitigating a nerve agent attack involving 2,000 people with 14 firefighters on duty. They talked about decontamination for 600 people per hour while containing the scene and evacuating, blah, blah, blah. The incredible observation was that everyone in the room applauded their efforts like there was a prize for exaggerating the biggest fallacy.

Let's get responsible. Think about your own area. If someone took out a hospital or apartment building, would you really have enough people to do anything at all? This is not a game played out on some tabletop with ribbons for the winners. If you believe that, buy a train set from Lionel and create your own world where firefighters never die. I am not telling you not to consider chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, but at the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center there was an attempt to disperse biologics. The heat from the blast negated their capability.

Terrorist groups have attacked salad bars. We've seen several incidents where dumpster fires have turned into "chem-bio" emergencies because somebody illegally dumped waste. Nuclear weapons, from all accounts, are difficult to deliver. Chemicals could be a factor, but once again what do you buy with an indefinite shelf life about to be used maybe once, if ever, by firefighters who most probably will be killed by their aggressive behavior? Only in drills do you get a heads-up that this is an attack when you are dispatched for an EMS call.

After the anthrax attacks started, we had our share of real incidents in this city, but certainly many, many more good intents. Somebody is protesting every day about something in this city; only the crowd size differs. I have been at many bombings, including those involving the British and Russian Embassies, Russian airlines and the Argentine ambassador.

During the wave of anthrax incidents, we all responded to valid calls, but more likely the "white powder" originated in the detergent aisle of the supermarket or, the all-time greatest, "white powder" on an elevator button (powdered sugar from a jelly donut). All had to be investigated by manpower already taxed with fire and EMS responsibilities.

Before we attempt to plan for an event like this, why don't we go to the experts and see just how they do it? Look at your capabilities in realistic terms, not with "group think." Ask yourself what was killing us before 9/11? Before we go ask for toys we may never use, let's spend more money going "back to basics." Let's train our officers, chiefs and newer people how to effectively perform size-up - and I don't mean by memorizing acronyms. Let's spend more money on training for fires in buildings with trusses. Let's demand better staffing on our apparatus to better accomplish our mission. I must confess, in my opinion, two or three personnel on a rig is suicidal.

Over the 10 years before 9/11, we in the fire service were attacked many times. How many abortion clinics were bombed? How many fires were started by animal-rights groups? In the District of Columbia, where target hazards are everywhere, I have responded to six real bombings in 29 years. This is certainly not meant to make me an expert, but it is certainly enough to make me worry as a boss. The fear I have is if we don't learn from our brothers in Northern Ireland and Israel, we will certainly commit the same mistakes they have already made.

We are on new ground and we need to change the culture of our service delivery. We have a subway system in our city and many thousands use it every day. My recurring worry is a bomb at 5 P.M. on a weekday and my guys go racing in to "save" people when the second bomb goes off meant strictly for them. We are at war now. We are no longer the good guys able to transcend events because we are there to care.

I have one job and that is to ensure those who serve under me go home after a shift. I hope we never forget that responsibility as we make contingency plans for whatever scenario works out only on the tabletop. While we have been planning, how many of us have written that letter to our members of Congress? How many of us have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to lift the burning ban for training? How many of us have taken that class in chemistry so that we understand the "stuff" out there? Let's not forget those who sacrificed before us.

I recently went to a summit of one the alphabet groups. While we pontificated about dues and image, a guy got up and spoke about a chief who had died on the fireground, but had been denied federal benefits because of a pre-existing plaque problem. The room went silent and then his issue appeared to be dismissed. I was not a member of this group, only an invited guest, but I was appalled at the apathy.

We have had a sobering experience with 9/11. I felt that the positive, if there could be one, is that for a time we were all one. One voice, united as never before. Let's talk to each other and never let anyone take something from any of us or deny us the manpower or tools that we need. Let's share knowledge and seek knowledge so that the guys who didn't go home that day will live forever.

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.

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-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 has degrees in fire science, construction management and labor law.