Published Monday, August 1, 2011
| From the August 2011 Issue of FireRescue
Dear Nozzlehead: My department, like so many others, has spent the last 10 years trying to prepare for the next 9/11. Whether it’s expanding our role into WMD/hazmat or buying new equipment or sending us to new training, there’s a focus on the idea that we need to do more to ensure that we’re not caught unprepared again. Here’s my question: Can we really be prepared for the next 9/11? Is it a reasonable expectation and, equally important, is it the best use of taxpayer funds that we spend so much time preparing for the next big disaster, when small incidents are so much more common? At what point do we just need to accept that we’ll never eliminate risk in our society, and that we should concentrate our efforts where they can have the most effect, rather than channeling precious resources toward worst-case scenarios?
—Somewhat Prepared on the West Coast
Dear Somewhat Prepared,
If not us, then who? That’s about as simple and as complicated a response I can give you. If we’re not as prepared as possible, then we’re letting down ourselves and our communities. Can EVERY fire department be totally prepared for the next attack? Sort of. Let me ’splain.
Let’s look at the overall national response to an attack like we would look at a sports team whose goal it is to win. Can EVERY player function in EVERY role? Nope. So what we do is train ALL players to a basic, common level, and then we train specialists to handle specific jobs. Great pitchers may not be great hitters, and great quarterbacks may be poor blockers. Get the point? It takes a team.
Let’s look at this from a regional approach. Does EVERY fire department in a region need to be trained in EVERY aspect of a response to a terror attack? No, and it’s impossible to do so. As you suggested, time, money, etc., are key factors to keep in mind here. However, there’s no reason why all the fire chiefs in a region shouldn’t get together to determine who will be responsible for each area of expertise. Simply put, who does what? Additionally, for each “team,” there should be backups so that efforts are duplicated, just in case a team or department is rendered unable to respond. Further, much like the USAR team concept across the country, local regions are encouraged to develop a local response, so that we minimize wasted funds and maximize available resources.
I want to touch on your comment about “small incidents” being so much more common. You are 100% correct, but that doesn’t change the fact that if an entire region gets its act together, that region is better prepared for the big events. And the word “prepared” will have to be defined locally, as being prepared for a WMD event in a metro city has different challenges than that in a rural, minimally populated area.
Small-scale incidents, meaning what we do day to day, are no-brainers: We absolutely MUST be able to handle a dwelling fire, a car fire, a crash, an apartment fire, a commercial fire—whatever YOUR community protects from fire and whatever else your department “legal paperwork” says you do. Again, it’s whatever YOU are expected to protect, what your elected officials expect you to protect and what your community wants to fund (as the funding almost always determines the level and quality of service).
With a terrorist or WMD attack, the response would be regional, with whoever is “first due” having the initial duties of size-up and initial response—and surely having plenty of qualified help on the way. To expect ANY department to handle it by themselves just ain’t gonna happen. Even the FDNY has a comprehensive mutual-aid plan (significantly enhanced since 9/11) as a part of its WMD and related disaster response. I’ve always kind of laughed when I heard about other departments that have the attitude of, “We don’t need those outside departments helping us.” They need to take their heads and egos out of the sand.
There’s no question that we’ll never eliminate risk in our society (and this job), but managing risk is all about determining what risks a community could face. The National Fire Academy even has a course that teaches first responders how to determine their community’s risks. And while the most common risks are the runs we respond to most often, this certainly doesn’t mean that we should blow off training related to other low-frequency, high-risk events. Those are the incidents that pose the greatest risk to our communities—and also our members. That’s why R.E.C. (Regional Egoless Cooperation) is critical for our success in both the “common” incidents and the less common ones.
So should we concentrate our efforts where we can have the most impact—the day-to-day runs—rather than channeling precious resources toward worst-case scenarios? In short, we need to do both, and the only way to get started is by creating a thorough PLAN based upon the COMMUNITY and the REGION.
Look, when the next terrorist event occurs, who the hell do you think will be the first to respond? Yeah, exactly, so we BETTER be able to show that we learned from 9/11 and have a PLAN (along with the appropriate training, etc.) to help us deal with it. Be prepared so that we’re able to do our best in handling whatever “it” is when “it” happens with a REGIONAL response approach to these low-frequency, high-risk events. And we need to do so while also handling the daily runs (those “small incidents,” as you called them, which are traditionally high-frequency and low-risk) professionally.
There’s no shortage of information out there to help you prepare, whether it’s in after-action reports, NIOSH reports, fire service books and magazines or conferences. The challenge is managing all the information and resources available to us.
The bottom line: There will always be challenges in our attempts to be as prepared as possible, but the challenge doesn’t excuse us from trying—and trying in innovative and traditionally different ways. And yes, that may mean training in ways that you may not always be comfortable with, but your comfort isn’t always what comes first.
There are TONS of lessons to be learned from the FDNY on what they did prior to and on 9/11, and what they do now, and if we haven’t learned from them and applied these lessons locally and regionally, then we’re just kidding ourselves and blowing smoke when we claim that we want to honor those who have lost their lives on 9/11. Actions, not words, are the best way to prepare and to honor those murdered 10 years ago.
Want to Honor Them? Train!
Amazing—10 years ago, the unthinkable happened when our country was attacked and nearly 3,000 people were murdered, leaving behind a pain that will last for generations to come. In the coming weeks, there will be so many different ways to memorialize those who were killed. I certainly hope that every community (hopefully led by the fire service) hosts a service that gives everyone a chance to show respect for those murdered on that day. Sadly, however, some communities are more focused on reducing fire/EMS budgets. Some of the best trained, heroic and legendary firefighters in the FDNY were killed on 9/11. Want to honor them? Be as focused, as gung-ho and as trained as they were. There are few better ways to “Never Forget” than to make every day a training day. May those murdered on 9/11 rest in peace, and may their families and friends achieve some level of peace despite their loss.
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