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Defense Dollars

Homeland Security's new First Responder Initiative will spread federal funds to local agencies, but will it be enough?

October 01, 2002  |  by Lois Pilant

As one might expect in an incident of such unprecedented magnitude, command and control was shattered and confusion reigned. The report found that EMS ambulances that were not assigned, insisted on going to the scene. Firefighters desperate to help, mobilized at the site, rather than a staging area. The magnetic board that fire officials used to track dispatched units was destroyed when the towers collapsed, leaving no way to track units or personnel. The FDNY issued a full recall of personnel, but since no recall had been issued in 30 years, no one really knew how to manage such a thing nor was there any training for fire department personnel, or any recall procedure for EMS personnel. The department also had no official process for evaluating the need for mutual aid, or any formal method of requesting or managing it. And finally, FDNY did not have an accurate database of each employee's emergency contact information.

The report lauds how the disaster was handled, given the capabilities of the department and the enormity of the attack. It also makes a number of recommendations so the department will be better prepared for future incidents.

They include:

Operations-Expand the use of the Incident Command System; improve support to incident commanders to better perform command and control functions, planning, logistics, and inter-agency coordination; improve its ability to assess the needs of the rest of the city during major incidents and to deploy the resources to meet those needs.

Planning and Management-Anticipate future needs, develop, expand, and update procedures to exchange operational information with other agencies; improve the ability to assess risks across the city to create specific response plans for key locations, and prioritize training and investments in new resources.

Communications and Technology-Improve the process of evaluating, acquiring, and deploying technology and communications equipment and infrastructure; improve radio communications; improve the tracking of department personnel and patients treated by EMS.

It Can't Happen Here

It would be easy to read the McKinsey Report's recommendations and treat them as something relevant only to a city like New York, and applicable only in a large scale incident like the September 11 disaster. That would be a terrible mistake, says Sgt. John Sullivan, the designer of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department's Terrorism Early Warning group and a nationally recognized expert on global terrorism.

"Anybody who thinks it won't happen in their city should call Sam Gonzales, the former chief of the Oklahoma City Police Department. Prior to that incident, 75 percent of all incidents occurred in Washington D.C. or New York City. Nobody ever imagined an attack in Oklahoma City, but they had one. Nobody ever anticipated a biochem incident would be real, but look at the anthrax attacks in Trenton, N.J., and in Florida," Sullivan says.

Police and fire personnel have always worked closely together, but, in the post-9/11 environment, that cooperation has become even more critical.

Sullivan also cites the 1984 incident in The Dalles, Ore., where 751 people were poisoned by lab-cultured salmonella that was dumped into salad bar dressings and coffee creamer in 38 restaurants. The perpetrators were followers of Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh, whose goal was to use a biological weapon on the eve of an upcoming election. Presumably, if enough voters became ill, they would stay home, not vote, and the Rajneesh's slate of candidates would sweep the election. "It was the first attack of a biological nature that had a political bias," Sullivan said. "And it didn't happen in a big city."

No city is immune, he adds, which makes preparation an important step. He suggested some specific activities, all of which fit the funding requirements of the Homeland Security's First Responder Initiative.

1. Integrate your public safety response. "When it comes to managing an attack, this is the area where we have traditionally failed," Sullivan says. "We all know our skills and our own discipline. We tend to work by ourselves and view other disciplines as competitors for funding or prestige. But when it comes to terrorism, no one agency can do it alone. We need the skill sets that other disciplines have."

2. Focus on exercise and training. Look at how an adversary might attack. Find your vulnerabilities and come up with ways to close those gaps. The TEW brings in experts from all disciplines, including other police agencies, to accomplish this task. "Using outside expertise prevents tunnel vision or group think, which is what happens when everyone starts to agree with each other because they think that's what is expected," Sullivan explains.

3. Determine your own capabilities and those of your response partners. What are the shortfalls, and conversely, how can you leverage one another's strengths?

4. Develop common practices and equipment standards. "We can build greater capabilities by synchronizing our response efforts, but also by working toward open architectures in communications, protocols, and planning methodologies," Sullivan says. "Even something like interchangeable canisters on our gas masks is important in a multi-agency response."

The consequences of a terrorist attack are wide-ranging, and terrifying. Agencies that can build their first-responder capability through planning and preparation not only will make their communities safer, they will strengthen their daily response capabilities. The First Responder Initiative may be a way to support those efforts.  

Lois Pilant is the former editor of a law enforcement magazine, a writer for the National Institute of Justice, and a frequent contributor to POLICE.

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