Domestic Terrorism: What Have We Learned?

In the June 2000 issue of Firehouse®, I wrote a piece called "Terrorism: Are We Prepared?" After the terrible events of Sept. 11, I feel that possibly we are only slightly better than last year. We must develop some new plans and options to combat this terrible foe.

Photo by Chris E. Mickal

It is said that history repeats itself, and in the world of terrorism this is probably more true than not. If you examine the past, and look at catastrophic terrorist events, it usually was, and is, not a one-time event. In 1995, the Aum Shyrinko cult released sarin nerve gas in a crowded Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and causing injury to over 5,000 people. It may be a little-known fact that in 1993, this same cult attempted to release anthrax spores in downtown Tokyo. What would have been next?

In my opinion, we are in the midst of yet another attack on this country. Now the fear of biological terrorism has emerged in New York, Washington, Florida and elsewhere. In Miami, from Sept. 13 to Oct. 29, we responded to hundreds of suspicious-powder alarms and a host of bomb scares. Federal buildings, hospitals, municipal government buildings and abortion clinics have been the primary targets. Yes, some of these have been malicious calls from the nefarious element trying to send whatever political message they have, but by and large most have been a fearful reaction of law-abiding citizens. The end result, of course, is a complete depletion of manpower and equipment and wasted time. On one day when the volume of calls was high, there were only two fire apparatus in service in the whole city.

These events had to be addressed quickly and intelligently. There should be a contingency plan in place to address depleting resources, exhausted and demoralized firefighters, and most importantly an education plan for the public. Good use of the media is paramount in these cases. The public information officer (PIO) should put together a list of telephone numbers of information hot lines and procedures to be taken by citizens who think they have found a suspicious package.

The TV stations, and for example here in Miami the Spanish radio stations, should release information citizens can use to reduce their fears and indirectly reduce the call volume of senseless calls. Flyers should be printed to be given to victims or concerned citizens with the appropriate information. Clear-cut information should be disseminated to the rank and file as well as to just what we are going to do with the endless suspicious-substance calls (powder and suspected anthrax powder).

Depleting resources is another problem that must be addressed. Since the events of Sept. 11 and the anthrax attacks in Washington, New York and Florida, the federal government has taken every encapsulated suit available, along with other ancillary equipment. There is a 22-month waiting period for encapsulated suits.

Something that needs to be addressed immediately is the supply of paper gowns that are given to people who have been decontaminated. Vendors sell "privacy kits" that each contain a paper gown, booties and a plastic bag for clothing. A good way to make these up in an emergency is to purchase paper gowns, booties and a supply of plastic bags. Take the items to a middle or elementary school and ask the children to make up these kits. The public relations good and support from the schools and children is amazing.

N-95 masks are in short supply, and Tyvek suits are tough to find as well. The logistics officer in your department should have telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and plans in place to order needed supplies for hazardous materials teams and any other units that would respond to these calls. Emergency operations teams should have a cache of equipment ready to respond to a full-scale incident. The Miami-Dade County Emergency Operations Team, for example, has this in place and recently it distributed antidotes to nerve agents to the three local hazmat teams in Miami-Dade County.

My fear in this chain of events is that the next terrorist thrust will be a chemical attack or a combination of incendiary, biological and then chemical. This would open up yet another Pandora's box of logistical problems.

It is also said that out of every tragedy some good emerges. Here in Miami, and I hope elsewhere, the powers that be have finally placed nerve gas antidotes on the trucks where they belong. I argued about this for the past two years, and thankfully all the other hazmat teams agreed with me. Pressure was applied by us, and by the unfolding chain of recent horrible events. Those holding the purse strings now understand the importance of being properly prepared and attired, and are releasing funds for use by fire departments and specifically hazmat teams. It is about time!

Just as we must rethink our approaches to terrorism, we must also take a hard look at "traditional" approaches to fires. A good example is how we respond to high-rise building fires. Tradition has the command post set up in the lobby of the building near the annunciator panels and elevators. Incident commanders are going to have to take a strategic look as to where they set up their command posts, staging areas and sector distribution. Health departments are going to have to address laboratory analysis issues, and hospitals will have to be involved as well.

As I watched the events happening on TV, 1,000 miles away, I was thinking to myself, what would I have done if I were the first-arriving unit on that scene in New York? The sobering conclusion is, I would have done exactly the same thing as FDNY did, and I and countless other brother and sister firefighters would have died too. It is easy after the fact to analyze what happened and what we could have done to limit the death toll to those civilians, firefighters and police officers. When the glass is falling and bodies are falling from buildings, making informed decisions is not only difficult, but probably impossible. We can only plan for the future and take those appropriate steps to correct perceived mistakes and learn from them.

In our profession we learn, evaluate and correct, and to put it in perspective, "There but for the grace of God go we."

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.

Chief Michael J. Essex is the special operations officer assigned to the Emergency Response Division of the City of Miami Fire Rescue Department. He is a member of the hazardous materials and dive rescue teams and is a SWAT-Medic commander.