Better planning, training, coordination and management procedures are needed to protect emergency responders at the scene of terrorist attacks and disasters, according to a study issued today by the RAND Corporation and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
The study proposes a new approach that would make protecting the health and safety of emergency responders - including police, firefighters and ambulance crews - a key priority in coordinating the overall response to terrorist attacks and major disasters.
Currently, each agency that sends emergency responders to an incident takes responsibility for safeguarding its own workers. Because terrorist attacks and major disasters often draw emergency responders from several departments in nearby communities - with different operating procedures, communications systems and response plans - coordinating efforts to protect workers is difficult, the report says.
The study recommends enhanced preparedness planning to assure that all emergency responders to an event can be protected within the Incident Command System, the standard overarching management structure used in disaster response and called for under the newly established National Incident Management System. This would prevent different departments from wasting valuable time trying to come up with ways to protect workers on a case-by-case basis at each emergency scene.
"The challenges posed by the new threats of terrorism and longstanding threats from other major disasters requires a new approach to protecting the safety of emergency responders," said Brian Jackson, a RAND researcher and lead author of the report. "Protecting the safety of emergency responders needs to be as much a concern at the outset of an event as battling the problem."
"Every time emergency responders take action, they put their lives on the line," Jackson added. "We can't eliminate those risks, but we can do more to manage the risks and protect our nation's critical first responders."
"At the scene of major disasters, responder safety is a collective responsibility for the multiple response agencies and organizations involved," said NIOSH Director John Howard, M.D. "We look forward to working with our many partners to make this new report an important resource for planning and preparation."
"Every year an average of 110 firefighters lose their lives while responding to emergencies," said Congressman Curt Weldon (R-PA), co-chair of the House Homeland Security Caucus, who joined Jackson and Howard at a Capitol Hill briefing today on the RAND-NIOSH report. "At least half of those deaths could have been prevented if first responders had technology available to disclose the health and location of these men and women. In the event of a major catastrophe, we can not afford to lose our first responders to careless and preventable hazards. State, local, and federal agencies must begin to look closely at the health and safety of our most important assets in America's preparedness against terrorism."
Other recommendations in the report call for:
- Developing a cadre of highly trained disaster safety managers who can lead coordination between agencies. Drawn from local response organizations, these people would know their localities and be quickly available. They would also have the broad-based understanding of disaster situations and crosscutting expertise in safety management that is needed to supervise multi-agency safety efforts.
- Incorporating safety and health issues more realistically into joint disaster exercises and training, to make sure that safety management is more than just a training footnote.
- Preparing in advance the types of expertise and other assets needed to protect responder safety. This would help insure that safety-related reinforcements will be able to be used quickly and efficiently in an ongoing operation.
- Developing common standards and guidelines for responder training, hazard assessment, responder credentialing and protective equipment to assure that responders have the knowledge and tools needed to accomplish their missions safely.