Situational Awareness for the Modern Responder

By James Kutz

In the years since many of us started our careers in emergency services, the world around us has changed dramatically, not just with the tragic World Trade Center attacks in 1993 and 2001 but also with the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the Charlie Hebdo assault in Paris, and other attacks around the world that regularly remind us that terrorism is still a threat to the American way of life, and that emergency responders will be on the front lines.

Violence directed against fire and EMS responders is on the rise; the 2012 Christmas Eve siege on firefighters in Webster, New York, may be one of the most well-known assaults, but it is hardly the only instance of a routine call turning out anything but routine.

Terrorism comes not only in the form of sophisticated attacks planned out by international groups, but it also can be born from domestic terror cells or even a lone person using violence to get attention. Responders from departments of all sizes need to prepare and train regularly to handle situations involving bombings, weapons of mass destruction, active shooter, and even everyday instances that escalate into unexpected dangers.

This article will hopefully help responders better prepare themselves for these types of incidents.

(1) A bomb technician makes his was to x-ray a suspicious package at a local hospital two days after the Boston Marathon bombing. (Photos by Mike Nester.)



Today’s fire service responds to more than just fires, from medical emergencies to just about any imaginable life- or property-threatening hazard. Although it may be cliché to repeat, we need to remain vigilant and observant at every phase of these calls and assess every changing situation. Crew members need to watch everyone around them at all times. These seemingly innocuous calls might be setups for an attack on first responders or a way to bait a police response to ambush them.

When you arrive, and while interacting with the public, responders need to watch the hands and mannerisms of each person. Weapons can come from anywhere and are in all shapes and sizes; they don’t have to be conventional things you would think of such as knives and guns. The weapons can be anything.

The danger doesn’t always have to be someone who is a “bad guy.” Recently, an engine company in my department responded to an elderly male who was unconscious and having a seizure in a corner grocery store. When the crew arrived, they went right to the patient and began performing patient care. Bystanders stated that they all knew the man as a regular customer and that he lived nearby.

As the patient became alert, he reached for a firearm that was concealed in his waist band. Members quickly wrestled for the firearm and got it away from him. He was a licensed concealed/carry holder and was simply reacting to what he assessed as a threat to him in his postictal state. We now use this incident as a teaching exercise for our academy recruits during “Real-World Operations” week, a program used as a final exam where we give students scenario-driven problems for them to overcome.

When responding to incidents other than fires, keep the following points in mind to assist in maintaining crew safety:

  • Scene safety is not just something we say during testing in the academy. You have to remain aware of your surroundings at all times.
  • Use your crew size to your advantage, if possible. You don’t all need to be in the room with the patient or assessing the situation. Company officers should stagger personnel and try to control exits and/or stairways as best they can; this will allow for a quick exit to safety or, at least, a position to defend yourself and hold in a locked room until the police arrive.
  • Crews should try to keep a “buffer zone” when large crowds or family members are present and try not to get cornered. Depending on the type of situation, this might defuse tensions if the patient is feeling anxious.
  • Make sure everyone in your crew has a radio. If the one person with the radio becomes incapacitated, others can retreat, but they can’t call for help.
  • Don’t be afraid to call for police assistance before you really need it. It’s the police’s job to control a potentially dangerous situation before it happens or, at least, to be there when something does go wrong.
  • Get the communication center involved by having its staffing do welfare checks on your crews in the first five to 10 minutes, and have a certain way to respond. If crews answer differently or incorrectly, it would then warrant a police response.

Some people may say, “Don’t go inside if you don’t feel safe”; if it’s a call that would warrant staging such as a shooting or stabbing, this is true. However, not every call will come in as one of those key indicators. You have to keep your eyes peeled at all times and be prepared. Unfortunately, as we have seen recently, some attacks are ambush-style attacks, which you cannot do much about. When pulling up to a house fire, no one is thinking that someone is inside who is going to start shooting at you. The only way to combat this is to continue on and drive your apparatus out of the “kill zone” or, if you’re already pinned down, use the truck’s size for cover and call for help. Fortunately, we all know that our brothers in blue will come quick and with numbers when we are in trouble.

(2) A Lehigh Valley (PA) Health Networks decontamination trailer.



First and foremost, like everything else in this job, preplanning is the key. Security in bigger cities such as New York and Los Angeles is tight, so executing a successful attack is difficult, especially at high-profile events or landmarks. Larger cities also typically have the resources to manage most large-scale incidents, making smaller communities and soft targets more desirable to assailants.

Think about the properties in your area that can bring large amounts of people, providing an area of opportunity for attack. For instance, communities of all sizes often have facilities for league or interscholastic sports. Most of these stadiums hold as many people as some towns’ total populations; it doesn’t have to be professional teams that bring in big numbers of people. According to 2013 data from the NCAA, the University of Michigan has an average home football attendance of 111,592, which is almost the same population of the entire city I work in jammed into just one stadium.

Departments should be proactive and preplan buildings that have the potential to hold such large amounts of people, and become involved in the planning process for large-scale events. Fire departments should also be involved in the process because they will undoubtedly be involved in the incident should one should occur.

Like we’ve all heard time and time again in National Incident Management System classes and table-top exercises, emergency response agencies really do need to work together and put egos aside to safely and properly execute during a real-world incident. Unfortunately, this is still not happening in many locations, and we have learned nothing in this regard in the 13 years since 9/11. Departments still have problems communicating with each another and, in many jurisdictions, multiple command posts are still being set up instead of one unified command post.

Planning and practicing for incidents must continually be a priority to remain proficient and efficient when operating at these high-risk, low-frequency events. These trainings need to be as realistic as possible, and leaders need to stay inclusive of the ideas and needs of other agencies. We all need to put egos aside and work together no matter which branch of the emergency services of which we are a part. During these exercises, an overriding goal should be to learn the capabilities of each service and what they can bring to the table to best use everyone’s advantages on an incident.

Let’s use an example of an active shooter incident. This response is mainly a police matter and sometimes the police, rightfully, aren’t afraid to let you know that they should be in charge; our firefighters don’t carry weapons and are not useful in the apprehension of a suspect. We are useful, however, in the patient care aspects and evacuating people from the building. Also, if any fires start, we can be there to extinguish these quickly. In other words, everyone has a job to do, and we all need to work together for the common good. The attackers are counting on creating chaos, and they are often successful because of our uncoordinated execution.

Beyond the immediate scene, we also can educate the public on the dangers that are out there and remind them the world is still a very dangerous place. America is a land of soft targets—from sea to shining sea—and there really isn’t much anyone can do about it. Placing metal detectors and body scanners in every mall and restaurant is just not practical.

Departments need to continue to educate the public in not only fire safety but personal safety as well. The subject of personal safety and homeland security is usually handled by police departments and the emergency management office, but the fire department certainly should play a part in this as well. Consider that people sometimes are more receptive to listening to firefighters than police officers for many reasons we cannot control, so use this to everyone’s advantage.

You can use a well-documented program such as the “See Something, Say Something” campaign, which is offered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS has many informative handouts and videos that you can use for public education. Since my fire department is responsible for the region’s bomb squad, we are frequently tasked with this job when questions arise.

Terror groups are becoming more and more sophisticated, using social media and other means to get their message out, and they are unfortunately becoming successful. Open source jihad has become a huge threat, as many recent events have proven. Internet publications such as Inspire magazine publish articles on how to carry out attacks, including step-by-step instructions on how to make explosive devices such as the ones used at the Boston marathon, as well has how to purchase items needed without raising the red flags that have been put in place since 9/11.

Groups such as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), also referred to as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), have a very aggressive social media program and promote attacks threatening the United States regularly. Recently, ISIS has sent out pictures through Twitter showing their flag at local landmarks such as the White House. The group also has told its follower to stop coming to fight in the Middle East, but to stay here and carry out their cause.

These home-grown jihadists are being told to carry out the lone wolf attacks on soft targets and first responders such as the hatchet attack against New York Police Department officers in November. Knowing that if they can be successful, this will cause the public to panic, and it will disrupt our way of life. Lone wolf attacks are difficult to track down because they usually don’t involve someone who has been formally prepared in a terrorist training camp but rather has been self-radicalized and will plan out the attacks using the instructions I discussed above. The holidays have passed, but think about what would happen to our economy if lone wolf attackers lobbed pipe bombs into a crowd of shoppers waiting for the discounted merchandise at 3 a.m. on Black Friday. Attacks such as this would devastate our economy through fear.

It’s absolutely important to remember that attacks do not have to be from international groups; home-grown terrorists will try to disrupt things for many different agendas. The bottom line to all this is we need to remain vigilant at all times and continue to be ready for everything and anything.

So, what can smaller departments do to prepare with smaller budgets then our bigger city members? Companies should try to regionalize their resources and obtain solid mutual-aid agreements as well as with training together regularly.

In our region, we’ve had success using a local hospital network that has taken a proactive approach to many topics in public safety. They have recently added mass decontamination trailers to their fleet of equipment and brought them out to any scene when requested. The host department simply needs to provide water and staffing, and the hospital handles the rest. They are also on automatic dispatch with our county hazmat team and have been a huge asset across our county.

Departments can try to obtain grants or other funding from different sources. Talk to neighboring departments and try to get different equipment that can be combined to support the larger mission. This will ensure that there is not duplication of service, and funds can be used in a responsible manner.

(3) A suspicious item incident during a marathon run through an Allentown, Pennsylvania, park.



The Internet has made it easy for people to find out how to make improvised explosive devices (IED). With just a quick trip to Google, YouTube, or the local hardware store, you can make yourself an IED. These can be hidden anywhere and be disguised to be anything, only limited by the imagination of builder.

If your department responds to suspicious package calls, take them seriously, and do not become complacent. Isolate the area to a minimum of 500 feet and contact your local bomb squad. DO NOT HANDLE THE PACKAGE! Treat it like a hazardous material scene by setting up hot, warm, and cold zones and wait for the proper authorities. There is no need to investigate the object up close; if someone thought it was suspicious enough to call you there, believe him and leave it to the bomb squad to check further.

Notably different from your regular operations, personnel should not set up command posts in areas that are typically used. If the attackers are trying to target responders, this may be a location that they have preplanned and staged secondary devices.

Take the time while you are waiting for the authorities to interview witnesses so you can give a good size-up to the bomb technicians when they arrive. Set up a good, tight perimeter so the public can be safe and be allowed nowhere near the package. Explosive devices can be made to look like anything, so don’t touch it. Bomb technicians go to special training for a reason; let them deal with it.

The majority of bomb squads are under the police department, however some are under the fire department. Of whatever they are a part, local departments should contact them to have them train you on what they expect and require of your agency.

The world is a dangerous place, and most of us are fortunate to not have to see that dark side of things on a regular basis, but everyone needs to be prepared and be ready for the dangers associated with the evolving world. We all just need to treat every alley as being just a little bit darker; the routine call may not be routine at all.


James Kutz is a 14-year career firefighter and lieutenant with the city of Allentown, Pennsylvania. He is assigned to Rescue/Engine 9 at the Central Fire Station. Kutaz is also a hazardous device technician on the Allentown Bomb Squad. He is also a suppression instructor for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and assist with the Allentown Fire Academy.

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