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As you sit down to watch the Olympics on TV this month, one gold medal you won’t see awarded is to all the fire agencies in Salt Lake City and surrounding communities that have diligently planned for this event since 1995.
I caught up with my friend Scott Freitag, public information officer for the Salt Lake City Fire Department, who was busily putting final fire department media plans in place for the Nineteenth Winter Olympiad. Scott and I first met back in 1996, when I had a layover at the Salt Lake City airport and several members of the EMS Division met me for lunch and a tour of some of their facilities. At that time, Scott was with the EMS Division. Since then, we have stayed in touch on a regular basis.
I asked Scott, how does one go about preparing for such a mammoth event of 3,500 athletes, from 80 nations, competing at 140 ticketed events at 10 different snow and ice competition sites with an anticipated 1.2 million visitors – not to mention the awareness of what happened on Sept. 11?
First, it should be pointed out that not all events will take place in Salt Lake City. Events that will take place in the city are the opening and closing ceremonies, Medals Plaza, Salt Lake City Ice Center, the media center (some 9,000 members of the media are expected) and a 10-square-block area of the city that will serve as a large gathering/party place. Besides the Salt Lake City Fire Department and its venues, all together throughout the entire geographic region fire and EMS operations will entail 19 fire departments, four ambulance transport services, two air ambulance services, 20 hospitals, two clinics, urban search and rescue (USAR) teams, the military and federal agencies.
Not reinventing the wheel has been some of the approach. First, the forming of a committee called “Fire/EMS 2002” developed a unified command approach. This committee operates under the Utah Public Safety Olympic Command. Additionally, to prepare, key planners traveled to Nagano, Japan, Sydney, Australia, and Atlanta during their Olympics to watch and learn from their EMS and fire operations.
Other planning included members of FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute (EMI) coming out from the Federal Emergency Training Center in Emmits-burg, MD, to conduct courses on unified incident command and consequence management. Additionally, a drill/scenario was done in the joint media center to test the major players from various disciplines (police, fire, EMS, utilities, federal agencies, etc.) on their approach to simulated and sometimes challenging events that included snow emergencies and terrorist-sponsored events.
Training has been a major staple of preparing for the Olympics. Members of the fire service who will be involved in operations have received additional training on weapons of mass destruction, hazardous material operations and disentanglement. What is disentanglement? Commonly, large groups of protesters will lock their arms together to make it more difficult for removal. Members of the fire service have been trained on how to disentangle any protesters if needed to do so.
Here is the basic approach to the operation. Each community is responsible for delivering EMS and fire operations within its borders. However, there is a unified command system in place to ensure sharing of resources in case of a major event, and to ensure all members of the fire and EMS providers look and are credentialed the same. All members of the fire service, regardless of which department they work for, will wear the same outerwear. When watching television, watch for the red and black coats that say “Fire EMS” on the back.
Each venue site is secured, or as Freitag said, “sanitized.” Prior to entering venue sites, engines or ambulances will be inspected and compartment doors will be sealed shut with special tape. If the compartment seal has been broken, somebody has been in the compartment. Vehicles are not to leave once they have entered the venue site. Additionally, all members of the fire service who operate in the venue sites have had to submit to backgrounds checks before being credentialed for that site. In some areas , firefighter/paramedics will operate with bicycles, golf carts and John Deere tractor-like “Gators.”