Fire Service EMS At Salt Lake City Olympics

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.”

A joint fire/police operations center is operational and will not shut down until the third week of March. This operations center is manned 24 hours, seven days a week.

Besides local EMS and fire organizations, two federal USAR teams will also deployed to the site, as well as two specialized Coast Guard hazardous material mitigation teams. Salt Lake City will also be manning its USAR heavy rescue squad, but will not be federally deployed.

In preparation for this massive event, the Salt Lake City Fire Department and others have canceled all vacations. In the case of Salt Lake City, members will be operating at 200% of their normal everyday operations. In essence, for every engine, battalion chief and dispatcher normally on duty, a second one will also be on duty.

Each venue site will have a full-time commander, usually a battalion chief, and a full-time inspector. Additionally, at least one four-person engine company will deployed to each site. Some engine companies are advanced life support (ALS) and others are basic life support (BLS). Large mass-casualty trailers will also be deployed at various points around the geographic area. Each trailer has enough medical supplies to handle 100 to 150 patients at a time.

All fire and medical resources in the area are linked into a computer system called “E-Team.” At a quick glance, incident commanders can look at every other jurisdiction’s resources on a minute-by-minute basis.

How will the Sept. 11 events impact the Games? Expect to see a higher military presence. Every National Guardsman in Utah, as well as some from other states, has been assigned to the Games. Hopefully, the Nineteenth Winter Olympics will be uneventful when it comes to providing EMS and fire services. However, if the worst occurs, the fire and EMS community is ready.

Gary Ludwig, MS, EMT-P, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the managing director of The Ludwig Group, LLC, a professional consulting firm specializing in fire and EMS issues. He retired as the chief paramedic of the St. Louis Fire Department after serving the City of St. Louis for 24 years. Ludwig has trained and lectured internationally and nationally on fire-based EMS topics. He can be reached at 314-752-1240 or via