If you have reviewed the terrorist and Weapons of Mass Destruction incidents that have occurred in our nation, you would have picked up on many lessons that resonate and are shared by these incidents. One of those lessons is that any jurisdiction is vulnerable to acts of terrorism or incidents involving Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). This is amplified by the numerous anthrax calls after the incident in Florida and Washington DC.
Many fire departments had hundreds of calls. I doubt that few, if any, did not feel the affect of the anthrax hysteria that gripped our country. Another lesson that is clearly demonstrated is the need for assistance from other fire departments. But let's not stop there; you will need assistance from police, public works, emergency management, state and federal agencies.
Agencies from around the country from local to federal levels were called to respond and to assist the local fire departments during the Oklahoma City Murrah Building bombing. On the other hand the New York Fire Department responded to the World Trade Center (WTC) in February 1993 with approximately 43 % of their on duty force and did not request assistance. Yet we find that the Emergency Medical Service did during that incident. This shows us the extremes at both ends.
Now we add WTC bombing on September 2001 and we find resources responded from around the country to assist. The lesson we learn here is that the determining factor is not how well train or how well equipped a department is, but how big the incident is in comparison to the available local resources to respond. Do volunteer and combination fire departments need to be capable of responding to a terrorist or WMD incident? Any fire department may be the primary responding agency or a supporting agency, this translates to all departments will need to be capable to respond. By integrating fire department training with surrounding departments, we benefit by having increased local response capabilities. When we train together, it improves and enhances our response.
The US Fire Administration data center shows of the 26,354 fire departments 73% are all volunteer departments. The other fire departments are either a combination or paid. Again, the data center shows that 19.9% of all fire departments are combination departments. Combination departments are further divided into mostly paid (5.3%) or mostly volunteer (14.6%). That leaves 7.1% as paid departments. The data center information shows that the total number of firefighters is 1,064,150. Of these 286,900 (27%) are paid and 777,350 (73%) are volunteer. This data also shows integrated training between the different types of fire departments would be a positive endeavor for all.
Does the type of department really matter when dealing with a WMD or Terrorist incident? The bottom line here is NO! No longer can we have one department standing at the road watching as another department battles an inferno without success. Simply because of some imaginary line drawn between the jurisdictions. In many areas, the volunteer department or combination department is the primary responding agency for fire and related services. If a WMD or terrorist incident happens in their jurisdiction they will be the first to arrive and have the primary responsibility for mitigation for fire related services (search and rescue, EMS, etc), with mutual aid from other fire departments from surrounding area. On the other hand, the volunteer or combination department may be the mutual aid department. If you have more than one of fire department in the local area, there is a need for training between all these fire departments.
Are these fire departments currently capable of handling a WMD or terrorist incident? This is a difficult question to answer. While some have extensive training and equipment there are some that simple do not have all that they need. This is true for across the board for all types of departments. The fact is that no one department, regardless of its size, is truly capable of responding to and handling a large-scale incident (such as 9/11) on their own.