BY RAYMOND F. KIERNAN
Homeland security has become a national priority in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Tom Ridge, director of the U.S. Office of Homeland Security, and his office have been preparing a national strategy for preventing and responding to terrorism. President George W. Bush proposed in his budget for Fiscal Year 2003 a $3.5 billion block grant assistance program for first responders that would be administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The objective of the program would be to have the states build on their existing capabilities and develop an effective, comprehensive response plan for a full range of terrorist threats. The ultimate goal would be to create a mutual-aid network across the country within which federal, state, local, and volunteer organizations can work together “seamlessly.” As originally envisioned, FEMA would send the money to the states on a per-capita basis, and the states would fund the localities.
Regional and local emergency response organizations also have turned their attention to their emergency response plans and homeland security. Having tenable response plans indeed may determine whether they qualify for federal grants. These organizations have been evaluating their resources, procedures, and operational plans to determine how prepared they are for a large-scale emergency/terrorist attack in their geographical area, how they can improve those areas they have found to be deficient, and how they can develop a more expansive and efficient response network.
Westchester County, New York, has undertaken such an assessment. The result has been the Westchester County Career Chiefs’ proposal for a “Westchester County Special Operations Task Force.”
THE WESTCHESTER COUNTY SPECIAL OPERATIONS TASK FORCE
The plan, if adopted and implemented, would greatly increase the fire departments’ everyday capabilities and could be used as a prototype for the rest of the country, according to some of the plan’s proponents. It would also help ensure eligibility for Homeland Security grant funds, they point out, since recipients of the block grants must have a response plan in place. According to the proposal, the Northeast corridor could easily be covered with 100-plus task forces and a standing army of 20,000 to 30,000 firefighters trained to wear Level A suits. Other provisions include providing fire chiefs with 40 hours of training on weapons of mass destruction and instructions in how to use the task force, carrying five or six Level A suits on every apparatus, and training engine companies as decon units for hospitals. Fire departments in New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Maryland have expressed interest in the task force concept, and some preliminary meetings have been held.
According to the Mission Statement, the Westchester County Special Operations Task Force (which would actually consist of two task forces-the Southern Westchester Task Force and the Northern Westchester Task Force) would handle hazardous materials and technical rescue incidents on a 50/50 basis. The task force would represent a partnership between local municipalities and Westchester County and would be capable of responding immediately with on-duty personnel. Local departments would be integrated into the task force and operate under a unified command system.
In a large-scale emergency or terrorist attack, the task force would use common equipment and training to provide an immediate response before any state or federal resources could arrive (three to four hours for the state resources and 24 to 48 hours for federal resources). Squad unit components of the task force would be strategically located throughout the county for maximum coverage, taking into account population, business centers, vital infrastructures, and government centers. The task force units would respond in Westchester County under the mutual-aid plan directed by Westchester County Fire Dispatch Center 60.
Each task force would be supported by a haz-mat team. The City of Yonkers Haz Mat Team would support the Southern Westchester Task Force; the Westchester County Haz-Mat Team would support the Northern Westchester Task Force.
Each task force would have a leader and would operate within the incident command system of the department requesting the task force. It would function as one of the operational branches (haz mat, rescue, or decontamination).
The Westchester County Office of Emergency Services (OES) would establish an oversight committee comprised of representatives from OES, task force administrative staffs, and municipalities that have squad units. The committee would address the following issues: funding sources and issues, equipment and vehicle accountability, legal issues, replacement of equipment and vehicles, specialized training issues, the County Fire Training Center, training levels and standards, and response within and outside of (mutual aid) Westchester County.
In addition to overall administration functions, the administrative staff would coordinate training programs, including those with outside agencies; create specifications for and purchase equipment and vehicles; and ensure that equipment and vehicles are maintained.
The Yonkers Fire Department would administer the Southern Task Force with the following funded positions: task force leader/operations officer (assistant chief), executive officer (captain), logistics officer (captain), and training officers (3)-captain/lieutenant. The Mohegan Lake Fire Department would administer the Northern Task Force with the following funded positions: task force leader, executive officer, and training officer.
The Westchester County Southern Special Operations Task Force would consist of the Yonkers Haz Mat Task Force, a rescue unit, two haz-mat support engines, and six squads (Yonkers, New Rochelle, Mount Vernon, White Plains, Eastchester/Scarsdale, and Greenville/ Fairview/Hartsdale). The Westchester County Northern Special Operations Task Force would consist of the Westchester Haz Mat Response Team (Valhalla) and two squads (Lake Mohegan and Westchester County Fire Training Center).
Each squad unit will act as an engine company within its primary jurisdiction and perform firefighting and other emergency responses consistent with department policy. The squad can also operate independently in a haz-mat or technical rescue role within its primary response district as the local fire chief sees fit.
Squad units may be requested through Westchester County Fire Dispatch Center 60 individually or as part of the full task force as a mutual-aid resource for the following responses: hazardous-materials incident, mass decontamination, structural collapse, confined space rescue, excavation collapse, high angle rescue, ice rescue, hurricane/ice storms, and extrication-transportation/machinery/industrial.
Each squad would have an officer as part of a six-person crew. The unit would be an engine company staffed with a minimum of one officer and two firefighters from the host department. The additional positions would be funded from an outside source. A second apparatus would be provided from the outside funding source as well as specified haz-mat and technical rescue equipment.
- Hazardous materials. Task force members shall be trained to technician level as outlined in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 471, Standard for Responding to Hazardous Materials Incidents; NFPA 472, Standard for Professional Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials Incidents; and OSHA 29 CFR1910.120, Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response.
- Technical rescue. Task force members shall be trained to perform specific duties outlined in NFPA 1670, Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Rescue Incidents.
Also, personnel shall be trained to the technician level in the following: structural collapse, rope rescue, confined space, vehicle and machinery, water rescue or swift water and ice rescue, and trench and excavation.
It is also proposed that chief officers be trained in weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and the task force concept and that all firefighters in the county be trained to operate in chemical protective clothing so they can assist in rescue and decontamination.
It has been projected that it would cost $3,950,800 to provide all eight squads with the specified equipment and a rescue truck with a generator and a winch. Projected personnel costs for the proposal, which include personnel (144 positions are needed) and backfill hours for the chief and team members’ training, is $9.105 million.
The anticipated total cost for the proposed Special Operations Task Force is $17,933,150.
It has been proposed that $1,194,400 be designated for a six-month pilot program. The funds would cover administrative, training, equipment, and personnel backfill costs. During that time, the following goals shall be attained:
- Establish administrative oversight to outline operational guidelines for task force operations.
- Establish training requirements and a training schedule. Purchase equipment for the haz-mat phase of the program.
- Train and equip the squad units to operate at the haz-mat technician level. Train the squad units to work in conjunction with the Yonkers Haz-Mat Team or individually, as needed.
- Identify existing resources within the local departments so a response for technical rescue incidents can be coordinated.
- Begin training for technical rescue, and begin writing specifications for technical rescue equipment.
- Begin writing specifications for squad apparatus.
- Near the end of the initial six-month pilot period, establish a realistic timetable to address the following:
- Obtain funding and hire additional personnel to attain staffing goals.
- Complete specifications for squad apparatus.
•Complete specifications for technical rescue equipment.
•Continue training in technical rescue.
•Train chief officers in WMDs and task force operations.
STEPS FOR SETTING UP A TASK FORCE
Westchester county offered the following guidelines:
- Designate a contact person for each city and county.
- Set up geographical areas (you can have more than one county in a task force).
- Determine how many teams will be needed (according to size of county).
- Determine which city will provide the haz mat/rescue company.
- Determine which cities have squads and how many.
- Determine the number of staff positions that will be needed and the city in which the staff will be located.
- Outline equipment needs and costs.
- Outline personnel needs and costs.
- Determine training needs and costs.
- Determine what you can do now to start forming a task force. Is seed money available to start training some firefighters? Is there some money for equipment?
- Commit now to a broad mutual-aid plan if it can be properly funded and staffed.Create an advisory committee from neighboring states (they should already have been contacted) to establish the task force and mutual-aid plan.
Keep in mind that you need a plan now while funding is available.
RAYMOND F. KIERNAN is fire commissioner and chief of the New Rochelle (NY) Fire Department, where he has served for 36 years. He is a member of the New York State Chiefs’ Legislative Committee and of the Northeastern States Fire Consortium.