Are You Better Prepared Now? Departments Respond to the Big Question

Billions of dollars have been delivered to beef up their mission capability.

Recognizing that the events of September 11, 2001 unveiled real problems for first responders nationwide, federal, state and local governments have shown them the money, billions of dollars to beef up their mission capability.

To get a sense if this has worked, Firehouse.com asked a number of fire departments to respond to this inquiry:

Are you in a better position to handle a major crisis today in your community than you were five years ago? Why or why not? What would be the worst case senario for you?

Here are some of the responses.

Atlanta Fire Department -- Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin

Without a doubt, America's fire service is better prepared and better educated, especially about weapons of mass destruction.

While America had seen its share of terrorist attacks before, the catastrophe of Sept. 11 is in a class all by itself.

Agencies are working together now because leaders have adopted NIMS, and realize the importance of being a team player.

The department won't let its guard down for one minute, and they're taking advantage of federal money available for training and equipment.

In addition to protecting Atlanta's residents and workers, fire and rescue personnel also provide services for Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, one of the largest in the country. A multitude of things go on daily behind the scenes to insure the public's safety.

That includes the sharing of intelligence. A battalion chief is part of the Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center, comprised of police, FBI, Georgia Bureau of Investigation and ATF. They are working diligently to gather and evaluate information.

Prior to the arrests of suspected terrorists in London last month, airport authorities were notified to be on alert. A command post was established, and staffing adjusted.

Baltimore City Fire Department -- Rick Binetti, Communications Director, Chief William J. Goodwin Jr.

Because we have a mayor and Fire Chief that take Homeland Security so seriously, the Baltimore City Fire Department is much better prepared for a response to a major crisis than five years ago. In just the last four years, our readiness and ability to respond to potential threats has grown exponentially. Along with our city partners, we have secured close to 18-million dollars in federal homeland security grants to organize, equip and train every firefighter paramedic and additional first responders from other city agencies in preparation to respond to what are unfortunately the very real threats all of us as responders face.

Baltimore has also led the way in making our region safer as a whole by taking the lead on preparedness and coordination between the major metropolitan area jurisdictions. By working together we have established a system of partnered response throughout seven counties. By aggressively going after and using DHS grants to create communications interoperability, equip multiple fire departments with the latest hazmat technology, response and detection capabilities, continuing multi-jurisdictional exercises and training and incident management cooperation, BCFD has brought together the emergency response agencies accountable for the safety of the area's roughly 1.7 people in a way that didn't seem possible five or six years ago.

Being prepared here also means that we can be prepared to help our neighbors even if they are neighbors five of six states away. After hurricane Katrina Baltimore sent a convoy of more than 35 fire, police, transportation, and public works vehicles and over 110 first-responders and city employees to Louisiana to assist local emergency personnel already on the ground.

The worst case scenario for Baltimore is probably the worst case for all cities. That is a surge of mass casualties resulting from an attack whatever the type - chemical, bio or nuclear. From an emergency response point of view we are confident about getting to a scene and triaging the situation. The challenge for all cities is the next step when the medical/healthcare system is confronted with handling a surge of patients in the thousands or even tens of thousands. Along with our healthcare system partners, we continue to exercise, train and put procedures into place for what might happen. But there are only so many hospitals and only so much staff to keep them up and running during such an event.

Des Moines Fire Department -- Brian W.OKeefe, Inspector, Phillip C. Vorlander, Chief of the Department

The Des Moines Fire Department is better prepared to handle a major crisis for several reasons. Staffing, training, equipment and mutual-aide agreements have addressed pre-planning, response levels incident mitigation.

Our department has received funding and support from city, county and state officials for all facets of our operations.

The public sector and private businesses are supporting our disaster planning requirements and have embraced the Incident Command System.

Cooperation between public safety agencies have enlightened us on our strengths, weaknesses, and limitations.

Worst Case Scenario for Des Moines would involve a chemical release by rail or tractor-trailer, which routinely pass through the center of our city.

Oklahoma City Fire Department -- G. Keith Bryant, Fire Chief

OKC is definitely in a better position to handle a major crisis today. It started for us in April 1995 with the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. At that time we recognized we had a need to develop and implement a comprehensive technical rescue capability for our community. The progress that was made in this effort was very evident on May 2, 1998 when a major tornado hit our city. At that time we demonstrated our proficiency in search and rescue techniques.

In the aftermath of 9/11 we were able to use available federal funding to obtain the tools, equipment and vehicles necessary to compliment the training and education that had been previously completed.

Although we don't consider ourselves to be where we need to be, we definitely feel as if we are ahead of the curve. We realize that an act of terrorism can occur anywhere at anytime, but because of our history with violent weather, we realize the most obvious threat to our community is from super cell thunderstorms spawning major tornados that have the potential to devastate a large geographical area. This is our worst-case scenario and therefore a major focus of our planning and training.

Dallas Fire-Rescue Department -- Joel V. Lavender, Lieutenant

The Dallas Fire-Rescue Department is a team of better trained and more efficient emergency responders than we were on September 11, 2001. Since that fateful day we have enhanced our Communication Division with additional training and a new Computer Assisted Dispatch (CAD) system. Our department has continued to allow members the opportunity to attend advanced training classes related to specific specialized emergency response activities. Such coursework may include Hazardous Materials and Technical Rescue procedures. We have also improved our interoperability communications with our neighboring local, state, and federal agencies.

The Dallas Fire-Rescue Department has always been a proactive department seeking progressive and innovative ways to protect and serve our customers. With our new vision we will continue to meet challenges the future holds for our department.

San Francisco Fire Department -- Kelly Alves, Executive Secretary to the Chief of Department

"The San Francisco Fire Department is better off today handling major crisis incidents because of the unity of purpose, direction, and control mechanisms that we have put into practice with the Police Department, Public Health Department, and several other Departments that support our response to terrorist attacks, as well as natural disasters.

We prepare for the major terrorism crisis by implementing a "common operating picture" using Unified Command and pre-planned tactics, techniques, and procedures. The practice has extended to our National Guard Civil Support Team - Weapons of Mass Destruction unit from the 95th CST-WMD whereby together we share information and conduct drills for enhanced coordination and communications. It continues outward to our respective State of California Office of Emergency Services Fire and Law Enforcement Branches. The Department remains vigilant in our efforts to mitigate and prepare for any CBRNE incident."

Salt Lake City Fire Department -- Chuck Querry, Fire Chief

The Salt Lake City Fire Department is in a better position to handle a major crisis today in our community than we were five years ago for several reasons. First, the events of 9/11 forced us to review and renew all of our emergency plans, to develop new plans that deal with current threats, and strengthen relationships with partners in mutual and automatic aid agreements. Second, through grants, budgets, and other funding sources the fire department has received specialized training and equipment that would help it deal with a major crisis. We have updated communications, specialized rescue, and emergency preparedness. Third, we conducted many drills and training exercises that have increased our capabilities in major responses.

The worst case scenario for Salt Lake City would be the inability to make focused or localized announcements to the community for evacuations or stay-in-place scenarios. We lack an effective system to make quick and focused calls. Secondly, the city lacks a true emergency operations center. What is in place now would not be sufficient in a major crisis. Both of these issues are related to a lack of adequate funding.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department -- Chief Robert Palestrant, Acting Director Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security

We're in a better position for several reasons. Each event, man-made or natural is, or should be a learning experience, whether that event directly impacts our area or is halfway across the country. No community or response agency can fully utilize plans and procedures that were designed five or ten years ago due to ongoing changes in technology, the world’s political climate and the fact that every natural event continues to be different from the others. Our access to technological changes, advances in forecasting the weather, and increased ability to interact and communicate with other local response agencies, the State, and Federal government gives us an advantage that didn't exist a decade ago.

The worst case scenario for us would be a manmade disaster during a major event such as a NASCAR race or the Superbowl.

Columbus (Ohio) Division of Fire -- Karry L. Ellis, Assistant Chief, Fire Marshal, Fire Prevention Bureau

The Columbus, Ohio Division of Fire has greatly improved our ability to respond to crisis events since 9-11. We have purchased much new equipment, become more involved in local agencies with a counter-terrorism nexus, provided threat specific training, and conducted or participated in many multiple agency training operations.

In the equipment category, we have purchased all new SCBA, obtained anti-nerve agent drugs and carry them on all front-line apparatus, obtained a brand new Haz-Mat vehicle with an assortment of hi-tech sensors and personal protective ensembles, and upgraded our Bomb Squad capabilities especially with regards to VBIED's. Our Bomb Squad and Haz-Mat units are both are equipped with radiation sensors that can identify specific radioactive isotopes that are being released and the Haz Mat truck is equipped with a portable mass spectrometer. Every company officer on all 34 Engines, 16 Ladders, and five Heavy Rescues is equipped with a radiation pager. In our Logistics Center, we maintain pre-loaded skids of mass casualty supplies and PPE.

Within the Public Safety Department, our Communications Division is in the process of replacing all public safety forces walkie-talkie's, has added another tower to our 800mghz system, purchased an ACU-1000 radio system that can cross-patch disparate frequencies, and is purchasing a $1.1 million communication emergency response vehicle. Our communications system is shared with multiple agencies over the seven county metro area and has a 14 county regional paging capability; intercommunications ability has been good for years, but has been enhanced since 9-11.

We have standardized joint operations with the Columbus Police, Ohio Highway Patrol, Franklin County Sheriff, the Airport Authority, the Ohio State University, and the Army 52nd Weapons Of Mass Destruction/Civil Support Group for such events as OSU home football games and other major events requiring heightened security. Our Bomb Squad Captain recently traveled to the NCAA Southeast Conference specifically to share operational planning on how we handle the football games and other significant events.

We have members of CFD serving in the local Terrorism Early Warning Center, attached to the local FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), serving with the Franklin County (structural) Collapse Team, as well as Ohio Task Force -1, one of 28 DHS/FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Teams.

I realize the question was directed to us as a fire department, and new equipment is a part of that, but enhanced training, and joint operations with a cooperative attitude have significantly increased our terrorism response capability.

Obviously Ohio State University has some research labs that could cause us some problems, as does Battelle Research Institute. We have identified all of the threats in our community and are in the process of working with the owners to develop a response plan for each business on the target capability list.

Phoenix Fire Department -- Mike Sandulak, Division Chief

The Phoenix Fire Department is in a better position to handle a major crisis today as it was five years ago because we have had a great deal of additional training on WMD, we have hired more Firefighters, have more resources, and opened more fire stations. We have also established an enhanced relationship with the Phoenix Police Department and made a joint Homeland Defense Bureau. We have Terrorist Liaison Officers (Police and Fire officers that respond to suspected terrorist acts, meth labs, white powder calls, bomb threats etc.), and more trained CERT volunteers. We have also put into service two Heavy Rescues (soon to be three) that were implemented into the statewide Heavy Rescue response system after 911.

A worst case scenario for us would be any act against our Firefighters.

Charlotte (NC) Fire Department -- Chief Luther L. Fincher Jr.

We are in a much better position to handle a major crisis today than five years ago. The new anti terrorism training, Cooperation, Collaboration, Coordination and Communication between all first responders (EMS, Law Enforcement, Public Health, Hospitals, Emergency Management and Fire Service, State and Federal HLS) in our region, Unified Incident Command, NIMS, training of the other disciplines that support everything we do and the Advanced Local Emergency Response Teams (ALERT) we have in place today make us much better prepared.

Our worst case scenario could be one of several things, dirty bomb, a catastrophic disaster i.e.. 10 kilo ton nuclear device setoff in downtown or a case of bioterrorism. The critical evacuations that may have to take place will require thousands of hospital beds and they simply aren't available. The least expected maybe our worst, Pandemic Flu if the predictions hold true and 40% of our response staff are unable to report to work.

LAS VEGAS FIRE & RESCUE -- TIMOTHY R. SZYMANSKI, PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICER

In the Las Vegas Valley we are much more prepared. The five fire departments that make up the Las Vegas Valley (Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Henderson, Boulder City and Clark County) operate on an automatic aid principal, basically meaning there are no boundaries or first due areas. Which ever unit is closest to the incident when the alarm is received, it is dispatched to the call. During the past five years, some of the major improvements include; all departments now operate a new mobile command unit; all firefighters are issued portable radios. All fire and EMS radios operate on the same 800 MHz system which means any firefighter, from any department can talk to anyone else. Private ambulance services, local hospitals and airports are also on the system. There are limited capabilities with the police, but with a new radio system they are working on, they will also be part of the system. We now have multi-channels and TAC channels giving us many options when using communications.

Interagency cooperation is excellent at the federal, state, county and local level. When large activities are held in the Valley, at least one of the emergency operations centers are used staffed by all agencies, which gives us a chance to work together and know one another.

All departments are (or already have received) a new CBRNE unit (Chemical, Biological, Radiation, Nuclear, Explosion) response unit and it is staffed. The two large Hazardous Materials Teams in the Valley (Clark County & Las Vegas) have received new units and are equipped with the latest in monitoring equipment and staff.

Each department and law enforcement now has a dedicated homeland security office and they have regular meetings and intelligence exchange.

Las Vegas Fire & Rescue operates only public safety bomb squad in Southern Nevada. The team has had an increase in the number of personnel, received new equipment including robots and a mobile command unit for their exclusive use. They have been meeting and training with other local agencies and the military for a number of subjects including explosive devices, chemical/biological weapons and WMD.

Lastly training had increased dramatically. Many people have been to the National Fire Academy for a number courses including over 150 key city officials participated in a week-long training class which focuses on such events. A number of large scale and table top exercises which consisted of agencies at all levels have participated.

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