Are we prepared? No! Are we more prepared than we were on september 11?
I hope so!

Many of us listened to Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Special Operations Deputy Chief Ray Downey say in regard to a terrorist attack on the United States, “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’!” Many of us failed to listen!

To be sure, most departments do not have anywhere near the resources required to handle what was thrown at the New York City and Washington, D.C., area responders that day. Do we simply shrug our shoulders and say that we don’t have “enough firefighters or equipment” and go back to whatever we were doing? That’s no excuse-we are all smarter than that!

If our city is the target of the next attack, we should all realize that “we” (ourselves and our current resources) will probably have to stand alone for the first six to 12 hours or more. So, now that we know that we are not exempt, what can we do to better prepare?

Prior to September 11, all Toledo Fire and Rescue members were trained to the Awareness level of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) training. Some of our haz-mat and chief officers were trained to a higher level, and some of us were National Fire Academy course instructors. But that was before September 11-it is not enough now.

I believe that all members of every department should be trained at a minimum to the Operations level of WMD. Can you set up decon stations and then decon hundreds of civilians? I went through my first “hot decon” immediately after September 11 at COBRA training in Anniston, Alabama. That was an eye-opening experience. Once you decon civilians, what are you prepared to do with them? And on and on and on! Get all the WMD training you can now! Send key individuals for “train the trainer” courses and then pass along the knowledge. Then drill on it!

Fire departments must look at their disaster plans. Most of us pull out these plans annually when the yearly disaster drill comes around. They should be reviewed realistically for flaws. Are your resource lists current? Would they have been useful for what happened in the Washington, D.C., area and New York? Will they be useful for whatever could happen next?

Is your incident command system (ICS) up to date? For all but a few departments, you are not the problem as it relates to the incident command system. Your mayor, city council, police chief, and public works officials may be. Get everyone singing from the same song sheet. Don’t wait until after the incident to train the mayor on his position in the ICS.

Know where you’re vulnerable! Again, I realize that most departments are not prepared for what happened on September 11. Look at your city, and put yourself in the terrorist frame of mind, if possible! What “bad” things could be done to your city? Make contingency plans for those possibilities.

What about the local shopping mall, college, television/radio station, international manufacturing company, or other potential target located in your city? What would you do if they were attacked?

Since September 11, our department has trained all of our more than 130 officers to the WMD Operations level. We have set up training sessions for elected officials in our and several adjacent counties (remember mutual aid?) in ICS and emergency operations center operations. We are rewriting our disaster manual; we tested it in a tabletop exercise in December and will test it in a functional exercise this year. That’s what we’re doing now. Are we prepared? NO! Are we more prepared than we were on September 11? I hope so! As training chief, I can tell you we will do more in the future.

One last word. I can remember eating dinner with Ray Downey and other Fire Engineering folks many nights during FDIC and FDIC West. It was tough to get Ray to talk about FDNY and “his” experiences. He’d talk about his children and grandchildren-but not a lot about “the job.” I wish I had listened more! He-and his fellow firefighters-will be missed!

-John (Skip) Coleman, deputy chief of training and EMS, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue; author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2001); editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering; and member of the FDIC Educational Committee.

Question: In light of the attacks on New York and the Washington, D.C., area on September 11, in which areas should fire departments be focusing their training efforts? What has your department done since then?

Leigh Hollins, battalion chief, Cedar Hammock Fire Rescue, Manatee County, Florida
Response: The focus depends on where your department is located and the type of community you protect. The training objectives of large urban departments with suspected attack targets will be much different from those of departments in “small-town America.”

For many departments in rural America, the answer is to “stay the course” as long as you already have a good emergency training program in place. No additional training should be required, although you should heighten your sense of awareness and institute a higher level of security.

Places like Manatee County, Florida, where I reside and work, would not seem to be a place that would have terrorist problems, but consider the following:

  • We are within 50 miles of McDill Air Force Base, which is the Strategic Military Central Command Center for the Middle East.
  • We have an Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) jail facility in our county that holds suspected terrorists.
  • Air Force One was on the tarmac of the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport in Manatee County when the terrorists struck on September 11.
  • Several of the terrorists were enrolled in flight school at our airport, until they left a plane on the runway and were expelled. They then enrolled in Venice, Florida, 20 miles south.

Areas such as Manatee County that are neither rural nor urban could have some potential for terrorist activities. Hamilton, New Jersey (my hometown) is another example. Before September 2001, who would have guessed that town would be the center of an anthrax contamination problem? No one!

Even with these possible targets, I do not believe there is much we can do to bolster our training in the face of terrorist threats. Each member in Cedar Hammock Fire Rescue receives 20 hours of training each month covering multiple subjects. We feel prepared to handle whatever is thrown at us. This may be a misconception, but how far should you take things? You cannot prepare for every situation in the world.

We have educated our personnel about anthrax and other biological agents since the attacks and will continue to add topics as they become necessary. But as far as any other terrorist-related training goes, we feel it is more of a domestic security issue than a new training topic.

For the larger cities with known targets, the main issues are mass-casualty incident training, stockpiling supplies, and reviewing the citywide emergency plans. Improving “call back” policies and procedures is another important issue. I do not think we can “tactically train” the nation’s urban firefighters for these types of attacks.

I feel that FDNY was aware of the potential and was prepared for what could happen. I have listened to the late Deputy Chief Ray Downey speak and had talked to him about these issues. I know his city was as prepared as it could have been. What happened there was a national domestic security breakdown-an act of war, not a failure of the city or of FDNY. The department was trained and equipped to handle what could have been reasonably anticipated. That, as we know, is not what occurred.

The answer depends on the following: (1) the type of area your department protects, (2) the potential targets that may be involved, and (3) your department’s present level of training. I do not feel that there needs to be a sweeping change in the way we are training our firefighters across the country -only in those geographical areas that justify it.

Ron Hiraki, assistant chief of employee development, Seattle (WA) Fire Department
Response: To develop a training plan to prepare for future incidents, firefighters must assess the knowledge and skills needed and determine how to acquire that knowledge and those skills. The results of that assessment may seem overwhelming when considering the type and magnitude of devastation following the terrorist attacks. The dedication of firefighters to train and prepare for disasters will prevail. There are several areas of knowledge and skill and training strategies all firefighters can apply to the task.

  • Weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Since the Oklahoma City Bombing, public safety agencies have been training on WMD. In addition to the various types of WMD, recognition, and response, firefighters need to pay particular attention to secondary devices, or secondary hazards such as building collapse. Given the post-September 11 anthrax scares, training in nuclear, biological, and chemical incidents and reviewing hazardous-materials procedures are essential.
  • Building collapse, heavy rescue, and multiple-casualty incidents. The value of and need for this training are obvious. Working in or around a collapsed building, searching for victims, shoring, and rescue require special technical knowledge and skills. Even without special training, firefighters can learn to support personnel with special technical knowledge and skills. This will increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the search and rescue.
  • Incident management system. Firefighters recognize that an incident management system can be expanded as an incident grows in size or complexity. The reverse is also true. An incident management system can be set up to take a large-scale incident and divide it into manageable pieces. Many firefighters may not envision themselves in top incident management roles. The attack on the World Trade Center is a lesson in maintaining an incident management system when senior level fire officers are killed or incapacitated. Therefore, firefighters should be familiar with all incident management roles. In preparation for this, senior-level fire officers must establish a working relationship with other public service leaders to create an effective unified command.
  • Preincident surveys. Regardless of the type of incident or the cause, preincident surveys are invaluable. Knowing the layout of a complex or a building, its fire protection and engineering systems, where victims are likely to be found, escape routes, and additional hazards can help firefighters save lives, including their own. Firefighters need to establish a working relationship with building engineering and security personnel who can assist firefighters when responding to emergencies in the building.

Most firefighters have already acquired some of the knowledge and skills described above. Fortunately, training efforts can be directed toward reviewing or enhancing that knowledge and skill. Individual firefighters and company officers do not have to wait for their fire department to develop training courses and schedules. Some of the training discussed can be completed on an individual or company level. Fire departments need to assess their level of training in these areas and then seek and devote resources to train and prepare for the unthinkable.

Frank C. Schaper, chief, St. Charles (MO) Fire Department
Response: We have been busy since September 11, but much of this activity was planned before the mass murder of innocent civilians and emergency workers. For about one year, my county was planning a very large drill under the auspices of FEMA Region VII as part of its National HAZMAT Program. Our Comprehensive HAZMAT Emergency Response Capability Assessment Program (CHERCAPS) was held on September 29. This drill was designed to assess our ability to handle a large hazardous-materials incident or WMD attack.

I understand that several drills had been scheduled for that month but were canceled because of the attacks. However, our group decided to move forward. After all, this was exactly what we needed to prepare for more terrorist attacks. The drill went very well and included all area police agencies, fire departments, EMS, the county haz-mat team, hospitals, and emergency management centers. It lasted five hours and included 20 victims, many of whom were transported to area hospitals.

We activated the St. Charles City Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and the St. Charles County EOC and exercised both emergency operations plans. Both plans were updated.

Prior to the drill, police and sheriff’s officers received training. Area hospitals learned how to size up a situation to protect their facility from contamination and how to decon patients. Several firefighters were trained to the haz-mat Technician level, and all participating departments were trained up to the haz-mat Operational level.

Since September 11, our training has continued. We are reviewing our haz-mat equipment and training needs and are looking at our budgets for funding these needs.

On November 29 (after press time), I will be attending a regional meeting hosted by the State of Missouri Emergency Management Agency on Homeland Security and Anti-Terrorism Preparedness. Hopefully, this meeting will help us prepare our community to defend ourselves during a terrorist attack.

Steve Kreis, assistant chief, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department
Response: Let me extend condolences to the members of FDNY who heroically carried out the department’s mission, the families of FDNY members lost that day, and the American fire service.

Clearly, the attacks of September 11 will modify the way the American fire service and the Phoenix Fire Department carry out their mission in the future. On that day, we went from a service that protects our communities from fire, provides EMS, and responds to special operations emergencies to a service that may be called on to protect our communities from acts of terrorism and war.

Ever since the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City (and even before), federal, state, county, and local governments have been developing plans operations during acts of terrorism involving nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) emergencies. The Phoenix Fire Department has dusted off those plans and has started refresher training for first responders in NBC areas related to terrorism.

Departments must train for these new types of emergencies in many ways. For example, first responders must be more aware of their surroundings, communication centers must be alert to different types of calls and clusters of incidents, hazardous materials and special operations units must continue to be alert for new threats, fire officers need to consider secondary explosive devices and exposure to biological or chemical agents-this list could go on and on.

But, there is a sucker punch waiting for the fire service if we are not careful about our training focus. Our training must be twofold: It must emphasize preparation for the new threats and continue to strengthen and refine our current methods of operation. We don’t know exactly what the next event will look like, but the lessons we have learned in our day-to-day activities of the past will make the aftermath of these new incidents successful or unsuccessful.

Our incident management systems must be expanded to meet the magnitude or complexity of events associated with terrorism activities. Large-scale or complex incidents require a strong command presence. If the strategic level of the command organization gets behind the “power curve” early in the incident, it is almost impossible to recover. As always, anytime the incident commander is at a disadvantage, it is impossible to resolve the incident effectively and keep our members as safe as possible.

Everybody must be self-disciplined. A strong ICS can effectively deploy and manage resources, but only the individual firefighters can control themselves. Although capable company officers can have a great impact on the safety and effective operation of members assigned to them, the only true way to stay safe is through self-discipline. The difference between a professional and an amateur is clearly defined when the pressure is on. Everyone must practice self-discipline.

The success or failure of any operation rests with the ability of the organization to communicate effectively. Critical intelligence must be passed on to those who need the information. Communication systems must be capable of operating at any size incident, no matter how simple or complex.

Companies should also continue to focus on the concerns of everyday operations. Sound fireground tactics, risk assessment, personal protective equipment on fire and EMS calls, and a better awareness of our surroundings are a few examples of the training on which we must concentrate.

Most fire departments around the United States can effectively deal with the first few hours of any emergency, but how many of us have the resources to do heavy rescue activities for 24 to 48 hours until the first FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Teams (USAR) arrive and begin to work? Most departments will need to acquire additional resources to deal with acts of terrorism; but, as noted in the examples above, these resources must be integrated into the systems we already have in place.

The acts that occurred on September 11 will change many of the aspects of the fire service. But we cannot be lulled into training only on the “new” material. We must integrate the new with what has served us well in the past and continue to refine our daily operations.

Bob Oliphant, lieutenant, Kalamazoo (MI) Department of Public Safety
Response: There is no response to this question that could possibly apply to all fire departments. It is largely the responsibility of the individual communities to evaluate the potential for terrorist attacks and respond with the appropriate training. NBC attacks have received a lot of attention, but the historic tool of the terrorist has been explosives. Training that all departments might consider would be responding to a situation involving explosive devices.

The attacks on the American embassy in Africa, the U.S.S. Cole, and the World Trade Center in 1993 were all bombings. Despite the recent changes in terrorist methods, it is likely that most mass-casualty incidents will continue to be the result of explosive devices. European and Middle Eastern countries have long endured bombing attacks, and it is reasonable to conclude that the United States could see the same thing occurring domestically.

Firefighters could benefit from training in how to deal with a mass-casualty explosive incident. The training should include dealing with the initial effects of a bombing (such as fire and structural damage), recognizing secondary devices, and dealing with mass casualties.

Rick Lasky, chief, Lewisville (TX) Fire Department
Response: It’s hard to find the words that would describe how our firefighters felt on September 11, 2001. The sadness and the hurt that they felt for our brothers in New York City coupled with the anger for those that would do something so horrible were no different than what was felt by a nation full of firefighters. We lost a tremendous amount of talent, 343 great firefighters, and people who value family. We will always honor them, and we will never forget them. What happened that day has changed a lot of things in the fire service-how we respond to certain incidents, the “white powder substance” call, the suspicious package, WMD training, and so forth.

In light of what occurred on September 11, the Lewisville Fire Department has modified some of our SOPs and has taken steps to ensure that we are as prepared as we possibly can be for a terrorist attack. Almost immediately on September 11, we activated our EOC and began to plan for any events that might occur here.

We established a task force to address certain areas of concern, including the security of Lake Lewisville (the main water supply for Dallas and the metro area) and our mutual-aid response to the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. We looked at our religious institutions, power stations, telephone switching facilities, underground pipelines, and places of public assembly. At high school football games here, for example, there may be an average of about 12,000 present.

Regarding training, we brought in a nationally recognized speaker on WMD to conduct an awareness class for all city employees. Our Bomb and Arson Division handles response to suspicious packages, as in the past; we have developed an SOP for responses to a biological threat. We’ve taken a serious approach to all of these issues, but we have not overreacted.

The citizens that we have sworn to protect expect us to be prepared for anything, and it’s our mission to do so. We have provided the public with information so that they can better understand what’s been going on, and we continue to address any concerns. We have always prepared for just about anything. Through our emergency management plan, we feel we have ad-dressed a wide variety of potential threats, both natural and man-made. We are also very fortunate to have excellent relationships with our neighboring departments and have a very strong mutual-aid agreement with them.

Things will never go back to the way they were before September 11, and as forward-thinking fire service leaders, we will need to constantly plan for what may occur in the future, just as we have done in the past.

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