Responding To A WMD/Terrorism Incident

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.

The primary responding department will need support from the surrounding fire departments and other agencies. The key here is the size and scope of the incident compared with available resources on hand. An anthrax threat is one thing while a World Trade Center is another. They required some different response agencies. For instance, while public health would have a roll for both incidents, they would have a more active roll in a biological incident as opposed to a collapsed building. But, the Urban Search and Rescue teams would not necessarily respond to a biological incident.

Whether responding as the primary or augmenting agency, whether a volunteer, combination or full-time paid department, you may be called on to respond in either your jurisdiction or a neighboring jurisdiction. Many of the policies and standard operating guides (SOG) the agencies have will assist in handling a WMD or terrorist incident. Mutual aid agreements should outline responsibilities; the terrorism annex should be more comprehensive. While some fire departments have strong capabilities to respond with personnel and equipment there are many that do not. This is not just a volunteer department problem.

Most departments across our country do have some capability to respond and handle the incident. Regardless of your department size, staffing, budget, and equipment, you will need the help of other fire departments and agencies in a WMD/Terrorism incident. How do you make sure you are better prepared for an incident involving WMD and or Terrorism? The answer is somewhat simple. You must have mutual aid agreements; you must have a terrorism annex; and you must train together (interagency training). This includes all the different agencies that will be needed for the incident. For large-scale incidents, no one department will truly be capable of handling the incident alone. It will require an integrated response. To meet the demands of a WMD or Terrorist incident, interagency and or interoperability training is necessary.

Interagency training has several benefits. Training together will help with training cost. By sharing the cost, it is possible to stretch your training dollars. It is often cheaper to conduct training within the jurisdiction than going to outside sources. When you train together, you develop interoperability. One of the problems that fire departments have in integration is that they may have similar but different equipment. For example, one department may use HURST while a neighboring department uses AMKUS. Interagency training would give these departments flexibility to use either tool and improve interoperability. Interoperability makes integration into the operation smoother and / or seamless. Knowledge of each department's strengths and weaknesses can assist in planning and resource management. This will give you more flexibility in making assignments.

Another benefit in interagency training is that it will encourage development of similar policies and procedures. While it may not be feasible to have the same exact procedure or policy, the more that these compliment each other the more interoperability the departments will have. Other benefits include but are not limited to common terminology and the ability to work as a team instead of independent supporting agencies, a smoother transition into a unified command and identification of weaknesses in the emergency response plan (Terrorism Annex).

As a last thought on the subject of training, as was alluded to earlier, we must include in our training other agencies outside of the fire service. By including other agencies we will expand the benefits of the training. You are going to want and will need their services. You will have a better understanding of how they can assist. They will understand how the Incident Command System works and where they fit into the system. You may even find that some cross training can be conducted to give more flexibility in the response. While training is not the one answer to the plethora of issue you will face, it is a good place to start. It is also an excellent way to determine where you need to go next.

Harvey Stewart is an Associate Training Specialist with the TEEX-NERRTC at Texas A&M University. Specializing in teaching the WMD Incident Command and Unified Command system to emergency personnel across the country. You may contact Mr. Stewart at