Prepare for a Terrorist Attack: It Happened to Us!

By Scott Roseberry

On Sunday, May 3, 2015, two men, Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, loaded their car with weapons and drove from Phoenix, Arizona, to Garland, Texas. When they arrived at 6:50 p.m., both men, wearing full body armor, emerged from their car wielding assault rifles and opened fire. After the gun fire ended, two terrorists lay dead in the street, and one school security officer was wounded. A Garland police officer used his service weapon to take down both men with the aid of several Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team members. It was unknown at the time if any more terrorists were waiting to attack, if any explosives were in the car, or if any explosives were on the bodies of the down terrorists. This event caused us to change the way we operate and view terrorism.

This incident did not happen in a big city like New York or Boston; it happened in Garland, a city that is probably much like yours. Garland is a residential city on the outskirts of Dallas and has a population of 235,000. The Garland Fire Department (GFD) employs about 250 full-time firefighter/paramedics operating out of 11 stations. We respond to more than 20,000 emergency calls per year; approximately 15,000 are mainly medical in nature.

The Incident

In April, the police notified us that the Curtis Culwell Center was hosting the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest for a group of men and women who call themselves the “American Freedom Defense Initiative.” The art exhibit was considered deeply offensive to the Muslim community, and we were informed that there had been Internet chatter from the Muslim extremists to carry out an attack at the event. The center is a 17,000-square-foot building (photo 1) and can hold up to 7,500 people; however, only 300 tickets were sold for this event.

(1) Photo by author.
(1) Photo by author.

Security for the event was tight. The SWAT team, bomb detection, and patrol units were on scene all day prior to the event. Police and security personnel were stationed at all points around the building. The police department had all of the parking lots blocked off with security at each entrance. Only parking lot A was open for the attendees. All of the 300 attendees also had to go through a security checkpoint before entering the building.

Almost all of our 250 firefighters are paramedics; a few opted to serve as tactical medics. Tactical medics train with SWAT teams and are deployed on an as-needed basis. Our preplan was to have our tactical medics embedded with the SWAT team and have an ambulance staged on scene for the entire event in parking lot B. If an attack occurred, we would use site 1 for our command post (CP) (photo 2). Our mass-casualty trailer would be brought to the site, and we would work jointly with police to mitigate the incident. One of our tactical medics was assigned as our police liaison.

The Terrorists

The event started at 5 p.m. and was scheduled to end by 7 p.m. As the event ended, the attendees began to exit the building and enter parking lot A. A police officer and security officer were blocking the entrance to parking lot B (photo 3). The terrorists stopped their car at the entrance to parking lot B about 15 yards from the police officer and guard.

The report of “shots fired” and “officer down” came in at 6:50 p.m. One of our tactical medics pulled the wounded security officer out of the Hot Zone, and our staged ambulance immediately began treatment and transported to the appropriate hospital. A 2,000-foot perimeter immediately became the Warm Zone because of the possibility that explosives might be in the car or on the bodies of the down terrorists.

(2) <i>Courtesy of the Garland (TX) Fire Department.</i>
(2) Courtesy of the Garland (TX) Fire Department.

Dispatch was notified of the shooting and sent an engine and an ambulance to the scene at 6:51 p.m. Battalion 1 was notified and checked en route and requested a second ambulance at 6:53 p.m. On arrival, Battalion 1 assumed Fire Branch Command and moved all radio communications to a designated Operations channel. The police department informed us that the CP location was within the blast zone. We moved it to site 2 (photo 2). At this point, Battalion 2; Truck 11; Engines 10 and 9; Ambulances 6, 3, and 11; Emergency Medical Services (EMS)-1 (safety officer/EMS supervisor); and the mass-casualty trailer were dispatched.

Truck 11 was the first unit to arrive in staging. Truck 11’s officer became “Staging” and moved all staging communications to a different Operations channel. The remaining Truck 11 crew members were assigned as command aides. On arrival, Battalion 2 was assigned as Operations Section chief, EMS-1 was assigned Safety, and all other units reported directly to staging. The police put the building on lockdown, and no one was allowed in or out. The captain of the tactical medics was inside and was assigned “Interior.”

The police department secured the area before we were allowed to check on the terrorists. This was a monumental task because of the 150 civilians who were still left inside the building, the vast area around the building, and the green belt behind the center. The police ordered three city buses to evacuate the attendees to an undisclosed location. Fire Branch Command requested Engine 1, Ambulance 8, and the Fire Department Operations chief to rendezvous with the police and evacuees at the location to cover any medical needs. They were assigned as “Location X” and moved their communications to a different Operations channel (for security reasons, the name of the location cannot be released). Because of the potential for an explosive device, the police department began evacuating nearby businesses as well. It was realized by 7:20 p.m. that, for firefighter safety, we were not going to be allowed to check the status of the terrorists for signs of life.

Incident Action Plan

We began to form the Fire Branch incident action plan (IAP) at this point. If there was an explosion, the nearby businesses could collapse. Since the buildings had been evacuated, loss of life in the businesses was not a concern. We would provide engines as necessary to combat any possible defensive fires. We were preparing for a mass-casualty event if there was an explosion because of the number of police personnel in the Warm Zone.

The other part of the Fire Branch IAP was to support the police and bomb squad in any way possible. We decided that if an ambulance were called to the scene, an engine would accompany it to provide personnel and as a blocking mechanism in case of more gunfire or an explosion. We also called for a transport helicopter to stand by on scene while bomb techs were downrange.

(3) Photo by author.
(3) Photo by author.

Around 9 p.m., the scene was secure enough for the bomb squad to start its operation. It called an ambulance to the scene to monitor their personnel before sending them downrange. As we had planned, Engine 6 and Ambulance 3 were sent to the scene. The police department also requested lighting from the fire department. There was a concern that someone might be in the green belt area; the scene lights were needed to “light up the area.” Truck 11 provided “scene lighting” to the area. At this time, Safety was sent to the landing zone to land the helicopter.

Over the next several hours, we waited for the bomb squad to secure the car and any possible packages the terrorist had brought with them. Around 2:30 a.m., the bomb squad gave us the “all clear,” and we began releasing units. Fortunately, in the end, there were no explosives, and we were able to mitigate the incident without any further harm to civilians or responders. During the incident, 13 units were operating in five areas; they used four Operations channels along with four cellphones. None of this would have been possible without an incident command system.

Lessons Learned

  • Unified command. This system is essential for a safe efficient outcome. At this incident, we did not have a formal unified command. Because the police department’s CP was inside the Warm Zone, we hesitated to join that CP. We used a liaison throughout the event; however, our communication with the police department was greatly hampered. Fire departments should try in the preplanning stages to encourage the police to place its CP in a location that is easily accessible and out of harm’s way. If this cannot be done, the fire department must take appropriate steps to ensure the safety of its personnel and use a liaison. An example of the communication gap we experienced was when we received a call from dispatch telling us that the police department was requesting an ambulance. We were assured that the ambulance would have a police escort through the perimeter to the scene. We sent an engine with the ambulance as a precaution to provide cover. When the ambulance and engine arrived at the perimeter, no escort was waiting, and the police at the check point wouldn’t allow them access. When they were finally allowed through, it was unclear where they were supposed to go and who had requested them.
  • Dispatch. We neglected to include dispatch in the Fire Branch preplan meetings and in the briefing the morning of the event. Several issues came up that could have been avoided if dispatch had known what our IAP was. In our case, dispatch had no idea that an ambulance had been on standby at the event. When dispatch heard “shots fired” and “officer down” on the police channel, it immediately dispatched an engine and ambulance to the scene. This potentially sent the engine and ambulance into an unsecured area. Fortunately, in our preplan, the engine and ambulance knew to go to the predetermined staging location. Dispatch needs to know where the staging location is. When we requested additional apparatus, they were dispatched to the incident address, not to the staging location. Another issue was that equipment that was at the morning briefing was not dispatched; instead, the closest available unit was dispatched. If dispatch had been included in the briefing, this would have been avoided.
  • Staging. When units are staged on scene for the duration of an event, scrutinize the staging location. In our situation, the original staged ambulance was within yards of the shooting and in plain sight. It is possible it would have been the next target had the terrorist not been gunned down. If a hostile event is suspected, consider where the units are placed: Can they be readily seen from the street? Make sure they are staged out of view and far enough away so that they won’t become a target but are close enough to provide immediate assistance. Also, ensure that there are two or more easily accessible exits. In this instance, the staged ambulance had only one easy exit, and this had just become the Hot Zone.
  • Communications. Cellphone communication became essential. At the time, we had no idea if more terrorists were waiting to strike. Subsequently, we assumed there were and that they were listening to our communications over the unencrypted open-air communications. We were receiving secure information from the police regarding their plans, and we needed to keep this information off the radio. We used cellphones extensively to disseminate the information to the on-scene crews. We also realized that we needed to keep cellphone chargers for multiple brands of phones on our command vehicles. Another point to consider is that cellphone communications are easily accessible for those with the intent to capture such traffic. Encrypted tactical radio channels are as vitally important for fire operations as for police operations.
  • Terrorist targets. Many of us fell into an internal scripting that told us to be prepared but that such an incident would never happen in Garland. As we surveyed our city over the years, we were unable to determine any potential targets for terrorists such as federal buildings or defense contractors. What we failed to realize is that a building or a physical site may not be the target. Many times, creating public terror or the feeling of insecurity is the goal. In our case, the people were the target. That is the reason the police wanted to move the remaining civilians to an undisclosed location as quickly as possible. Terrorists have changed their tactics, and we must change along with them. In the past, the thought was, the bigger the target, the greater the impact it will make on Americans; the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and the World Trade Center in New York City are two examples. Attacks like those led us to believe that the next attack would be on another building. In the future, we must remember that the people will be the target. Every city in America, big or small, will have people traveling through or visiting who could be a potential target for terrorists.

Note: For security reasons, some of the actions taken by the fire and police departments were omitted from this article.

SCOTT ROSEBERRY is a battalion chief with the Garland (TX) Fire Department and has been a firefighter for 16 years. He serves in Operations and oversees the Rescue division. He has been a certified paramedic since 2001. He received his Fire Protection A.A.S. degree from Kilgore College and is enrolled at West Texas A&M, where he is completing his B.A.A.S degree in emergency management administration.

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