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Making the Connection: First Responders

Collaborative Approaches to Threats Old & New

In an age of international and domestic terror, fire service and law enforcement representatives along with elected officials and technology researchers across the country are working collaboratively to find ways to enhance their response capabilities and better secure their emergency scenes.

Where We’re Coming From

As we prepare to respond to the pressing issues facing the fire service today, it’s almost impossible to remember our relative innocence of fifteen years ago, mere months before the bombing of the Alfred F. Murrah Federal Building brought the threat of terrorism home with a vengeance. Though just three years previously six people were killed and over a thousand wounded in bin Laden’s earlier attempt on the World Trade Center, and seven years before that the first domestic bioterrorist attack had been committed by members of the Rajneeshee cult in Oregon, it took Oklahoma City and the days and years that followed culminating on 9/11 to make us truly understand that we had experienced a revolutionary change and would thereafter be living in and responding to an age of terrorism.

Ted Kaczynski’s earliest foray on the grounds of the University of Illinois in Chicago back in 1978 and his many other improvised explosive devices that led to his eventual Montana arrest as the Unabomber just days before McVeigh and Nichols’ truck bomb fourteen hundred miles away killed 168 men, women and children in Oklahoma, barely registered as a blip on the national fire service radar. Because his attacks were spread over several decades and his victims were separated by thousands of miles, and since those communication technologies we now take for granted allowing local fire and law enforcement agencies to share data had not yet emerged, first responders took a traditionally bifurcated approach to the separate police and fire threats posed by Kaczynski and his kind. Today such a compartmentalized approach can no longer be acceptable to first responders, and the aphorism citing “two hundred years of tradition unimpeded by progress” cannot continue as the threats we’ve faced in recent history and those looming on the horizon require, even demand that we change our way of doing business.

Making Connections

Whether your fire department is large or small, career or volunteer, its charge remains the same: to protect the lives and property within your community. Your expected response capabilities may include fire prevention and suppression, medical response and transport, rescues ranging from extrication, haz-mat, high angle, and confined space to myriad other special operations, even environmental protection, with public education and arson investigation thrown in for good measure. However expansive your responsibilities are, it’s safe to say that they’ve evolved considerably over the past fifteen years, and highly likely that they’ve involved far more interaction with law enforcement than the brief encounter at motor vehicle accidents of only a few years earlier. It’s also a good bet that, like everyone else in the public and private sector, you’re being asked to do more with less. With that in mind, and considering the complexity of the new threats we face, it’s time to reach out to law enforcement, the medical community, and the private sector in an effort to develop stronger ties and shared resources.

The evolutionary and even revolutionary changes that have taken place at fire departments around the country over the last few years may offer ideas that you can apply, though they will require adaptation by you and your department to fill immediate needs and address long-term challenges. Some of these changes may have come from the top down, through directives and SOPs that articulated a vision of collaboration and cooperation held by management, while others came up from the troops, either formally through challenges and needs that were identified and addressed by first responders - where the rubber literally hits the road - then codified into changing procedures, or informally through ideas and relationships that fire fighters and their peers in law enforcement and the medical response communities developed which then became established practices through their successful employment.

Still other changes – and not necessarily the most welcome or easiest to incorporate – have come from the outside in, whether through statutory laws and regulations or revisions to nationally recognized standards and practices which required greater accountability and interoperability between agencies. Like the changes coming from within, ways must be found or devised to utilize these mandates as a means to improve our operations and capabilities, seizing them as opportunities for communication and collaboration while overcoming the objections of those who would seek to maintain the comfort zone of their status quo. If the evolutionary challenges aren’t taken advantage of as they come along, revolutionary changes will almost certainly be required by the demands of the moment.

Seizing Opportunities

In the past fire personnel interacted with law enforcement only briefly, occasionally working against each other in power struggles rather than together in partnerships. More recent years have brought emergency scene hazards and line of duty deaths within every response discipline, creating a greater respect for our shared risks and needs at emergency scenes, helping us understand that our separate tactical responsibilities must not blind us to our shared strategic goal of protecting lives and property, and allowing us to perform our duties more effectively. Post-incident analyses and critiques involving all agencies have provided participants the opportunity to learn how their fellow first responders operate, and discuss how those operations might be improved. Even an informal invitation to the firehouse for coffee, a meal or cleanup after a messy call can lead to frank discussions and improved relations.

From that dialogue you can develop shared training opportunities, with fire personnel taking the lead on haz-mat refreshers and incident stabilization, law enforcement addressing scene safety and spoliation of evidence, and medical responders providing blood-borne pathogen refreshers and MRT or EMT recertification where needed. Multiagency practical evolutions can and should be developed and held at a local level, just as mixed company operations are a standard practice within the fire community. While federally funded extended scenarios are useful tools at a regional level, the ability to learn and adapt locally is priceless, and can be accomplished at minimal cost within existing training time blocks. Changes in response tactics at school-related incidents are an example of why we need to train together, sharing strategic ideas and tactical resources as we evolve our approach to such events.

Along with training and routine scene response will almost inevitably come special operations, those resource-heavy scenes where all hands are working. Find the areas of convergence with other agencies and capitalize on them, find holes in yours that they can fill, and discover ways in which you can collaborate rather than compete. Perhaps you can embed personnel in marine or air units, providing medical or tactical assets to what had been a law enforcement resource. Perhaps you can utilize law enforcement and medical personnel within your haz-mat/WMD response team to ensure evidence protection and collection while ensuring the safety of your team. Investigate the need for paramedic and other special skills within law enforcement’s SWAT or Clan Lab Entry Teams, and examine your own Special Operations Teams for areas where embedded personnel from other agencies could improve or enhance your response.

Developing Partnerships

Don’t forget prevention and administrative divisions either, as lockdown drills join fire drills in school schedules; talking points for teachers and school administrators may initiate interesting conversations in areas where agencies can learn from one another. Some school officials may be more familiar with NIMS than their first responders, and the concept that a teacher or principal serves as Incident Commander until the arrival of emergency services is sure to start a lively discussion. Public education initiatives ranging from Officer Friendly and DARE to the staged crashes held at prom time can be all be areas around which to develop communication and collaboration, creating conversations between agencies and individuals and enhancing mutual understanding and cooperation when “the big one” happens.

And just as you utilize NIMS every day at routine scenes, start practicing the concept of Unified Command throughout the year by holding regular press briefings with the media involving Public Information Officers from across disciplines in order to develop routines and relationships that will serve everyone at the scene of an emergency. Work with other departments within your community to establish a safety-conscious approach to incident responses and daily activities, so the risks and hazards that fire may overlook can be addressed by law enforcement or medical personnel and vice versa. Preplan target hazards and practice tabletop responses with multiple agencies to ensure that everyone knows what the other will do and expect; you may be surprised to learn of their capabilities, limitations and expectations, just as they may be surprised at yours.

Finally, sit with your peers in these other agencies and share your resource lists, not just for logistical response needs down the road but in order to discover tools and equipment you might have alternate uses for. Find out what they have and how they use it, and consider new applications within your discipline. Fill them in on your assets, both human and material, and see if they have uses you’d never considered. Flush out areas of shared need and see if you can’t share the cost as well, utilizing apparatus, equipment and the personnel skills to raise your response readiness to a whole new level.

Where We’re Going

Sometimes these newly forged relationships may take you to unexpected places, whether onto an extended surveillance mission as part of a multiagency Joint Hazard Assessment Team, or into the halls of our nation’s Capitol to work together with your legislators toward more effective legislation. Joint operations such as the JHAT response developed by the FBI are a Federal example of the direction we need to go in, and there are similar models at the regional and local level. The proliferation of clandestine drug labs and plethora of white powder calls in recent years have brought together an alphabet soup of federal, state and local agencies, challenging our previous boundaries and forging new alliances as criminal, medical and public safety issues converge at the scene of an emergency response.

Recent efforts in Washington to update cellular legislation for the twenty-first century are another example of expanding alliances, as law enforcement and fire officers seek to utilize new technology breakthroughs in order to secure scenes more effectively by working with their elected officials to rewrite laws written a generation before such technology even existed (see related article “Can You Hear Me Now?”). Friendships first forged at motor vehicle accidents, hostage negotiations or public education details can evolve into partnerships for change in the public sector, and through merging our networks and sharing our resources we can make things happen collectively that would never be possible individually.

In today’s world first responders need more than ever to actively reach out to one another, to other public agencies and agents, to the private sector, to our elected officials in government. They need to hear from us; we need to hear from one another. We all need to seize the opportunities as they present themselves to be proactive and work with our peers in the first responder community in order to prepare for changing demands, expectations and available resources rather than missing those opportunities and having to react to deteriorating conditions in an emergency. The lives of our citizens and our peers quite literally depend on it.

Christopher Tracy
is a member of the Fairfield Fire Department in southwestern Connecticut, serving as Safety Officer, Public Information Officer and Chief of Training as well as Training Director for the Fairfield Regional Fire School since 2007.  Tracy started his career in the fire service as a volunteer in the neighboring community of Easton and a civilian fire dispatcher for Westport and Norwalk before being hired in Fairfield in 1990; after a decade on the line as a fire fighter, EMT and Haz-Mat Technician with the Fairfield County Hazardous Incident Response Team he went on to become Lieutenant and then Deputy Fire Marshal before his promotion to Assistant Chief several years ago. He sits on the National Fire Protection Association’s 472 Hazardous Materials Technical Committee as well as the Executive Board of the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association of Connecticut, and has taught extensively as a state-certified Fire, Police, Red Cross and Hazardous Materials Instructor for the past two decades.

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