We Need to Talk

By Dave Murphy

It is no longer a question of whether a terrorist act will occur in America but simply a question of when and where the next event will take place. As always, regardless of locale, our nation’s first responders will be dispatched to the scene to mitigate the aftermath.

As the media report the breaking news, the scenario is usually the same. The reporter with microphone in hand stands in the foreground and attempts to extract information from anyone willing to talk. Helicopters jockey for position overhead and confusion on the ground is apparent as sketchy, unconfirmed assumptions continue to be displayed across our television screens.

As the event takes on a life of its on, emergency responders continue to converge and immediately deploy into an operational mode. At a typical event, the fire department will establish an incident command post and direct the operations of the fire department. The same scenario is repeated by the police and EMS. The first priority of all agencies is to protect the emergency responder. The second should be to identify and limit the scope of the hazard.

How well do these multiple agencies communicate and coordinate efforts? While there are exceptions, the answer is usually, “Not as well as they should.”

Each entity understandably has different priorities and different command structures and may not fully comprehend the necessary actions of one other. Training is the only way to overcome this obstacle. Many communities conduct annual tabletop exercises that engage all local emergency services. At this exercise, community-specific emergencies are played out, with a post-exercise critique to follow. Because of time constraints and demands of many agency leaders, subordinates are often sent to represent and direct their agencies’ actions at such an event. In the event of an actual community emergency, these subordinates will most likely not be the ones making decisions for their agencies.

Another complication surfaces when the state and federal officials suddenly arrive and circumvent everything that is currently in place. Power struggles are routinely present at every large event. Again, frequent training that facilitates communication and understanding is the only way to lessen this occurrence.

Tabletop exercises are often complicated to design and difficult to schedule. At the very least, emergency services leaders of each community should meet often, at least quarterly, simply to get to know each other better and gain a basic understanding of each other’s priorities. As a result, communication and coordination abilities will be greatly enhanced when these agencies are fused together at a large event. If you are in charge of a segment of emergency services in your area, do yourself a favor: Place a call to one of your cohorts and begin your conversation with “We need to talk.”

Dave Murphy retired as an assistant chief with the Richmond (KY) Fire Department. He has industrial experience as a safety director with AFG Industries. He is currently at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, where he serves as an assistant professor in the Fire Science Engineering Technology program.

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