The Need for Joint Hazards Assessment Teams


The threat of an attack on a high-profile individual or large numbers of people gathered for major public assembly events presents significant challenges for public safety agencies. You cannot ignore threats made against events involving large numbers of people; you must evaluate them by using a combination of intelligence analysis and real-time surveillance and monitoring and by having trained eyes on the problem. While most threats never materialize, some may involve a suspicious package, an unknown powder on the floor, or a strange odor in the area. You must evaluate all of these and strike a balance in your reaction to a threat: Overreacting to a perceived threat could result in disruption of the event or crowd panic; no response to a real threat could result in loss of life.

The proliferation of information technology has made it possible for individuals or groups with limited knowledge and resources to improvise hazardous materials as weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Improvised weapons can range from simple devices such as a paint can to sophisticated weaponry. Safely and rapidly locating, identifying, and evaluating these threats and their associated risks in a low-profile manner require specialized training and skills; but, more importantly, it requires experienced personnel.


Joint Hazards Assessment Teams (JHATs) are organized teams that provide technical support for planning and responding to threats at special events. JHATs are normally comprised of specialized personnel from different agencies and disciplines, such as fire, law enforcement, bomb squad, and public health professionals. JHATs may also include scientists and specialists from private organizations or contractors, depending on the type of event or the possible threats that could occur during the events.

(1) Combined law enforcement and fire department training and exercises are critical to the success of JHAT operations. (Photos by Ed Allen.)

JHATs have been used successfully by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Secret Service (USSS) to manage and respond to threats at major public events. For example, some of the large sporting events at which JHATs have been employed include NASCAR races, Major League Baseball games (such as the All-Star Game and the World Series), and the Indianapolis 500. Some examples of even larger major events where JHATs have been used include the Olympics, the G-8 Summit, the U.S. Democratic and Republican National Conventions, the Presidential inauguration, and papal visits.

JHATs are a proven concept at the federal level, and the same approach has many applications at the state and local level for special events that draw large crowds. Some examples of JHAT implementation at the local level include parades, major sporting events, farm shows and fairs, and rallies or protests.

The JHAT concept is an effective response tool for public safety agencies challenged by major events that draw large numbers of people to a concentrated area where egress, response times, and crowd control could become concerns. In recent years, the cities of Chicago and New York have successfully deployed JHATs for major events, and while they use slightly different approaches to the way teams are deployed, their basic concept is the same. JHATs bring together a highly skilled cohesive response team that provides the incident commander (IC) with technical assessment, operational guidance, and communications support for identified threats that may occur at a major event.


JHATs function within the predesignated incident command structure established for the special event. They function in a scientific, technical, and operational support capacity to the IC to assist in decision making concerning suspicious packages, suspicious powders, or other types of problems that may present a hazmat/WMD threat. JHATs can also provide scientific and technical liaisons between federal law enforcement national assets and the local emergency response community. They may provide support to strategic command centers and support crime scene operations. Most importantly, JHATs provide the IC with the ability to deescalate an incident when a response is unnecessary and may disrupt the event.

(2) For a suspected event, fire department personnel can be assigned monitoring and detection, decon support, and backup.

The key advantage of a JHAT is described in its name:

Joint.The team is comprised of multiple agencies with different charters and responsibilities. The legal authority and jurisdiction of the fire department, the police department, and the health department are unique and different. When you bring representatives from multiple agencies together in a “joint” operation, you combine a lot of authority and expertise to deal with specialized problems.

Hazards. Large public events can present a wide range of anticipated hazards such as a possible gas leak, a strange odor, a smell of smoke in the area, a suspicious package, or a bomb threat. Evaluating these hazards or threats requires different disciplines that usually reside in different agencies.

Assessment.A JHAT’s strength is that it brings together significant technical assessment capability on the front end of a special event to ensure that the level of response matches the assessed level of the problem and threat. During the event, the JHAT provides rapid on-site assessment of hazards.

Team.The JHAT is formed in advance of an event so that members are trained and organized and function as a team. The different expertise and experience of the individual JHAT members bring strength to the team. JHATs bring together the expertise of fire, hazardous materials, bomb squad, and explosives professionals into one cohesive team.

It is important to remember that JHATs are not “mini-hazardous materials teams”; they are a small group of technical advisers to the IC. The JHAT is designed to move and act quickly in a variety of emergency situations.


Event managers responsible for the management of large and special events are challenged by a number of complex issues and potential risks. Some examples include physical security, counterfeit passes, medical emergencies, VIP protection, common crimes, disorderly conduct, weather emergencies, crowd control, fires, and the threat of a hazardous materials release.

What a JHAT brings to the table for the event manager is a highly skilled team of response specialists and subject matter experts to assist with threat assessment considerations. These threats may be against the event itself and what it stands for; the participants; or the guests attending the event, including VIPs.

Failing to adequately assess a hazardous material where the threat is WMD can result in injury or death to large numbers of people. Likewise, overreacting to the threat can cause embarrassment and a delay of the event. The empty toolbox, the white powder on the restroom floor, and the guy with an unusual cane are usually just what they appear to be, but you still need to evaluate them if you perceive them as a threat. How you identify and evaluate these threats makes a difference in terms of crowd control and event safety. This is the value that a JHAT adds to the IC and the event manager.

A JHAT is just another tool in the IC’s toolbox that, when used effectively, can help maintain a balance between the need for security and safety and the positive outcome of the event and convenience of the event participants. The main goal of a JHAT is to provide reasonable event safety and security without causing participants’ anxiety. Effective security also discourages criminal behavior and provides a safer environment for everyone. In the event of a real threat, the JHAT team provides an immediate on-scene technical assessment capability that can be deployed rapidly, has already been integrated into the command structure, and has established liaisons with special operations teams assigned to support the event.


JHAT members should have the following qualifications:

  • Middle-manager level within his agency with the authority to make decisions as they relate to the mission supporting a special event.
  • Appropriate level of training and certification for the area of expertise. Hazardous materials technicians should meet the requirements of both OSHA 1910.120(q), Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Regulation, and NFPA 472, Standard for Competence of Responders to HM/WMD Incidents, and have at least an operations-level background in explosive devices. Bomb technicians should also have a hazardous materials background.
  • Trained to the ICS-300 level.
  • Operational-level knowledge and expertise in providing protection at public events.

JHAT members must have full access or infinity credentials to allow for rapid access to all areas inside and outside of the venue. Members should have approval from their respective agencies to participate and have the ability to qualify for the proper event credentials. Security clearance requirements and background checks will be determined by the event manager or chief of security, but, at a minimum, JHAT members usually require either law enforcement credentials or a criminal background check with the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC) and a fingerprint check.


Special event planning will begin well before the date of the event. For local- and state-level events, the planning process might begin six months to one year in advance. For national special security events (NSSEs), the planning process may begin three to four years before the event. The Secretary of the Department for Homeland Security (DHS) is responsible for designating NSSEs, which are domestic or international events that could represent a significant target and warrant additional preparation, planning, and mitigation efforts.

(3) Law enforcement and fire department personnel prepare to conduct a search operation at a suspected clandestine laboratory.

By presidential directive, the U.S. Secret Service is the lead agency for the design and implementation of the operations security plan for the NSSE. The FBI is the lead agency for crisis management, counterterrorism, hostage rescue, and intelligence. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is the lead federal agency for consequence management, which includes response and recovery operations.

Most special events are held on private property; therefore, the leadership should be shared by the federal agencies with the lead responsibility and the private agencies or organizations that own, operate, or manage the venue. For local events that do not meet NSSE criteria and where a single agency has jurisdiction, special events will require multiple agencies to provide security, fire, and emergency medical services.

The joint hazards assessment planning process should determine the following:

  • The type of JHAT response organization required to support the mission.
  • The specific JHAT functions required and area of responsibility.
  • Equipment and resources requirements.
  • Command and control protocols.
  • Interagency and intraagency communication requirements and methods.
  • Training and exercise requirements.

An important part of the planning process is to determine the “who” and “what” of the JHAT mission requirements. Some issues that must be addressed during the planning process include the following:

Strategic-Level Command.Who makes up command (single agency or unified command), where will they be located, and can you communicate with them?

Technical Advisor. Assign a technical advisor from the JHAT to the IC on all shifts. This individual should be well-versed in the overall plan, have command experience at the hazmat branch director level, and have a variety of the hazardous materials skill sets.

HM/WMD Site Control.Who will be in control of the site during investigations and response?

Information Management and Resource Coordination. Intelligence is an important part of the information package to support the JHAT. The JHAT should receive an initial event threat assessment from the intelligence cell or Intel Unit and have an established liaison officer between the JHAT and the Intel Unit. As the event draws closer, the threat assessment should be updated and the JHAT briefed. The closer to the event, the more frequent the contact with the Intel Unit should be. On the day of the event (or the first day of activities), contact may be almost hourly or even real time, based on the threat.

Incident Objectives.Develop written incident response objectives with each type of major threat category prior to the event. These objectives may change and totally fly out the window during the actual event, but at least everyone on the Command Team will have a framework for decision making and an understanding of Command’s expectations for response and mitigation.

Crime Scene Operation.In the event of an actual incident, the JHAT needs to understand what its role will be to support crime scene operations or other special functions. Make sure the command structure and the working relationship among public safety agencies is well defined.

Laboratory Support.The JHAT will need to define what immediate analytical support it will require from field laboratories on-site or near the event. For a national-level event, the FBI’s Hazardous Materials Response Unit will provide advance analytical capability; you can expect those responsibilities to be clearly delineated. However, for a local event, laboratory services may not be as clearly defined or available.

Some examples of the skill sets that may be incorporated into the JHAT planning process include the following:

  • Fire, rescue, life safety.
  • Emergency medical services.
  • Hazardous materials/WMD.
  • Environmental.
  • Structural and mechanical integrity.


Working under the JHAT Response Plan, the team would respond to the following types of situations:

  • An actual or suspected intentional release of an unknown chemical, biological, or radiological agent.
  • An actual or suspected accidental release of any unknown chemical or other hazardous material.
  • The report of any unattended package.
  • The report or detonation of a hazardous device, suspected explosive ordnance, or bomb.
  • Any structural collapse.
  • Any confined space emergency.
  • Any fire, rescue, or medical emergency.

Other considerations for developing the event Incident Action Plan (IAP) would include the following:

  • Preevent scheduling for planning, training, and exercise activities leading up to the event.
  • Event scheduling for daytime, evening, and unscheduled function periods.
  • Preparation of a written Communications Plan that includes planning team members’ name and contact information, with copies provided to each team member.
  • Designation of a clearly defined command structure that integrates, as appropriate, incident command/unified command, the incident command post (ICP), and other multiagency coordination centers that may be established for the event, such as a Joint Operations Center and the Joint Field Office.
  • Written Communications Plan (ICS-205), including a primary, alternate, contingency, and emergency method of communicating. Include points of contact for both assisting and cooperating agencies in the Communications Plan.
  • For large events or those that cover a large geographic area, the JHAT may designate an interior team and an exterior team.


When dispatched, the JHAT investigates any incident within its respective response area and is normally responsible to do the following:

  • Conduct the initial rapid assessment.
  • Establish initial on-scene command.
  • Communicate to the ICP its initial findings.
  • Request, in conjunction with the ICP, the appropriate resources to resolve the problem.
  • Provide initial recommendations to the ICP regarding immediate actions necessary to ensure the safety of the public.
  • Provide initial recommendations to the ICP for remedial action.
  • Ensure the IC/event coordinator is notified of all incidents involving a suspected WMD.


Since the team’s mission is more oriented toward threat assessment and evaluation as opposed to mitigation, most of the equipment the JHAT carries should be detection oriented. Normally, this type of equipment is kept on a response vehicle; however, for special events where security and crowd control issues are of concern, consider how to discreetly deploy this equipment in any affected areas.

Some examples of the types of equipment a JHAT should carry include the following:

  • Chemical agent detection equipment.
  • Toxic industrial chemicals detection equipment.
  • Toxic industrial materials detection equipment.
  • Radiological material detection equipment.
  • Biological collection equipment.
  • Sampling equipment that will allow for the collection of liquid, solid, and gaseous forms of chemically, biologically, and radiologically contaminated samples.

The uniform of the day for JHAT members would be determined by the venue, type of event, and impact on the mission. The lead agency responsible for security at the event will usually establish the protocol for dress code.



Executing the JHAT Plan

As the event day draws closer, the JHAT should stand up and become at least partially operational several days before. The JHAT should address the following activities prior to event kickoff:

  • Establishing communications with the ICP and other multiagency coordination centers that may be established for the event, such as the local and state Emergency Operations Center, the Joint Operations Center, and the Joint Field Office. Don’t wait until the event starts to push all of the buttons of each agency and the coordination center from which you will need support.
  • Event-specific credentialing must be in place. If credentialing will change over time for security reasons, all JHAT members must understand that process.
  • Brief all personnel on their roles and assignments, and stage them.
  • Link up with your intelligence support.
  • Make sure all of your operations are functioning smoothly.

Planning and preparation in advance of the event mission establish a framework for how response is supposed to work. On a good day, during a real response, everything works as planned. However when a bad day happens and Plan A goes out the window, experienced and effective responders will have Plans B and C ready to go based on the contingent events. Operational plans should be flexible enough so that when conditions take the mission in a new direction, your safety and effectiveness are not compromised. The big advantages of JHATs are (1) the level of experience and training of the team members; (2) their ability to adapt and overcome problems not anticipated in the plan; and (3) their ability to function, if necessary, with limited guidance from Command and without communications.

Risk-Based Response Strategy

JHATs should employ a risk-based response strategy to evaluate problems that may be identified inside or outside the event. This process generally consists of the following steps:

1. Recognizing and identifying the threat.
2. Assembling the appropriate players (law enforcement, fire and rescue, public health).
3. Conducting a hazard and risk assessment.
4. Identifying and interfacing with command and control.
5. Prioritizing and implementing tasks.

The basic risk response model for JHATs consists of the following:

  • What is the perception of the problem?
  • From a legal standpoint, who needs to play?
  • Conduct an initial size-up: What do you know? What are people telling you? Identify the outward warning signs and detection clues.
  • If it is not an emergency, turn it off now and get back to normal as quickly as possible with minimal disruption. If it is an “incident,” keep the number of people required to make it go away low profile and minimal.
  • Deescalate as soon as possible.

JHAT Lessons Learned

Lessons learned from actual JHATs deployments at national-level events include the following:

  • Plan for worst-case scenarios. Special events can produce a variety of challenges, including extraordinary crimes, violence by protesters, terrorist attack, street closures, security searches of large numbers of people, and challenges to constitutional rights including freedom of speech and assembly.
  • Be cautious about fielding unproven technology that has not already been validated in the field. Like major disasters, major events can bring out engineers, scientists, and even politicians touting new gear and policies that may be useful in the future but are still in the beta test phase or untested in field operations. High-risk/high-profile missions usually do not make good test platforms.
  • Don’t allow agencies to do independent hazmat/WMD searches that are not part of the JHAT plan or have an operational role. All hazmat/WMD operations must be coordinated by and through the JHAT.
  • There is rarely a requirement to have personnel randomly walking around with detectors. Having serious-looking people walking around the crowd in tactical uniforms with impressive detection equipment only draws attention to you and may raise concerns that there is a threat that does not exist.
  • Make sure you have a plan when the “alarm” sounds. Based on current intelligence for the day of the event, write your mission statement and goals and post them for everyone to see. Five to seven strategic goals are all that you need for an event.
  • Have clearly stated objectives for each operational period. Some events last for only one operational period, while others may be one to two weeks in length.
  • Complete the IAP for each operational period, and develop a written site safety plan. Ask yourself if the plan is safe, legal, and within accepted standards and practices. Although your preevent plan may be volumes, your IAP should be simple and easy to understand across the entire organization.

Authors’ note: This article was adapted from the textbook Special Operations for Terrorism and Hazmat Crimes, 2nd edition, by Chris Hawley, Gregory G. Noll, and Mike Hildebrand © (2009). Reprinted with permission.

CHRIS HAWLEY is a deputy senior project manager for CSC and is responsible for several WMD courses in the DOD/FBI/DHS International Counterproliferation Program. Prior to his international work, he retired as a fire specialist with the Baltimore County (MD) Fire Department and before that was assigned as the special operations coordinator. Hawley has been a hazmat responder for more than 19 years and has 25 years of experience in the fire service. He has published several texts on hazardous materials and terrorism response.

GREGORY G. NOLL, CSP, CHMM, is a senior partner with Hildebrand & Noll Associates, Inc., in Lancaster, PA, a consulting firm specializing in emergency planning, response, and incident management issues. A member of the U.S. Air Force Reserve, he has 38 years of experience in the emergency response community. He is the coauthor of nine textbooks on hazardous materials emergency response and management topics. He chairs the NFPA Technical Committee on Hazardous Materials/WMD Response Personnel (NFPA 472) and is on the editorial advisory boards of Fire Engineering and FDIC.

MIKE HILDEBRAND, CSP, CHMM, CFPS, is a senior partner with Hildebrand & Noll Associates, Inc., in Port Republic, Maryland. He has 37 years of experience in safety, fire protection, emergency management, and Operations Security (OPSEC).

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