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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

State of First Responders: Are Public Safety Agencies Ready for High Threat Response?

It is the integration of the capabilities that makes us more efficient and effective -- integration that starts well before the emergency occurs.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, federal and state governments invested billions of dollars on preparedness efforts within the first responder community to respond to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) events. As time passed, there was greater realization that WMD incidents were less of a threat than conventional firearms and explosives. The intricate, often unrealistic, CBRN scenarios were replaced with more representative and realistic examples of attacks on the civilian populace utilizing readily available materials and weapons. These attacks were occurring overseas in countries with internal or external conflicts and in the Afghanistan and Iraq war theaters.

These events, commonly utilizing a variety of violent modalities, came to be categorized as complex coordinated terrorist attacks (CCTA) – a bit of a misnomer, as these events, at least domestically, are not always coordinated and not always committed by “terrorists”. CCTA has an excellent ‘ring’ to it, but exactly how can jurisdictions, agencies and communities really prepare for this general, nondescript threat? The term CCTA is just too broad and open-ended; a better descriptor for the various threats we face is the term “high threat”.

Generally, high threat events can be classified into five categories: Active Shooter/Hostile Events (ASHE); Explosives; Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN); Fire as a Weapon; and Civil Disturbance. Additionally, high threat events are not limited to “terrorists” conducting them, but any individual or group. The categories, with the exception of CBRN, utilize traditional weapons, tactics and tools, and do not require extraordinary capabilities or equipment to prepare for or respond to. However, effective public safety response does require an intimate understanding of nuances, issues and challenges of each threat; this is best achieved through a dedicated, multifaceted program that can advance a coordinated and integrated multidiscipline response capability supported by departmental leaders.

It must be noted that although the emergency response community distinguishes between WMD, CCTA and High Threat, the general public doesn’t. Due, in part, to the enormous governmental budgetary investment following the September 11 attacks and the fact that high threat incidents are occurring on a frequent basis, communities believe we should be prepared to handle these types of emergencies. There is a general expectation by the public that we can efficiently and effectively respond to these events – a fact that couldn’t be further from the truth in most communities and jurisdictions throughout the United States, particularly after 18 months of COVID-19.

Bullet holes in the door of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum following the shooting by James Von Brunn on June 10, 2009. (FBI photo0

High threat events occur quite frequently within the United States, requiring an emergency response from local public safety agencies. Each public safety discipline will undoubtedly perform their fundamental roles and responsibilities to the best of their ability. The question one must ask, however, is whether this “stovepiped” response is the most effective and efficient means to save lives. Objectively, we know the answer is no. It is the integration of the capabilities that makes us more efficient and effective. Integration that starts well before the emergency occurs, ideally in the form of a High Threat Program.

Over the past 10 years many jurisdictions have developed an active shooter response capability. Although this is a step in the right direction, all too often it falls short in scope and capacity. Many of these programs were developed from an ad hoc group of well-intentioned responders who purchased ballistic gear, developed a standard operating procedure and conduct an annual exercise, and then believe they are ready. This one-and-done planning process is not enough, as the complexities of an active shooter response require a continual training cycle that touches various critical response components, such as Tactical Emergency Casualty Care, unified command and warm zone operations. Continual evaluation and scrutiny of all aspects of this capability is a must. The motto must be, “If you are not changing, you are not learning; if you are not learning, you are not training.” Unfortunately, our leaders are failing to build true capacity that is sustainable, integrated and progressive. We continue to see the same points brought up in after-action reports: ineffective communication, lack of unified command, deficiency of equipment and coordination. An ASHE could occur in any community tomorrow as a predictable surprise. We know that these events occur in every type of community and that no one is immune, and yet our leaders – whether it is our police and fire chiefs, politicians, or state and federal officials – fail to understand the weaknesses in our response planning and the required complexities of fixing our response. Development of a true capability requires a commitment of resources, personnel and funding – in essence, a program. An integrated program between all agencies and departments that have a role in high threat response.

The fundamental component to development of a High Threat Program centers on the integration of law enforcement, fire and EMS, emergency management, communications and public health. The primary players, however, are law enforcement, fire/EMS and communication. These disciplines have to be in lockstep to advance preparedness and response capability development throughout a community. Equal players who are working together, supported by leadership, coordinating and advancing the operational response capability in each of the five high threat categories.

“We know that these events occur in every type of community and yet our leaders fail to understand the weaknesses in our response planning.”

Since the 1960s law enforcement and fire/EMS agencies have adapted to the needs of the communities they serve. They have created specialized response teams and capabilities to handle emergencies previously considered out of the traditional scope of the backstep firefighter or patrol officer. Hazardous materials teams, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), technical rescue and canine teams have been developed because they require a particular, specific skillset, training and education to appropriately manage and mitigate. The everyday first responder is ill-equipped and trained for these incidents to efficiently and effectively manage and mitigate.

What we are seeing with the increase in high threat incidents is the need to transition even more to a specialized workforce within law enforcement and fire/EMS. Our firefighters, law enforcement officers, paramedics, commanders, etc., are overwhelmed with the range of things they need to know and be proficient in on a daily basis. It is unrealistic to keep adding responsibilities, capabilities and expectations to the general workforce. Specialization within the workforce will assist in lessening the burden to train, educate and equip all our first responders. The generalist philosophy has run its course. The complexities of the world today require our leaders to look at things differently. We can no longer respond to today’s emergencies the way we have done over the past 20 years. Through specialization we will be able to address many threats, areas of concerns or programs while minimizing the impact on the entire workforce. Developing and implementing a High Threat Program is the first step to building a specialized response force capable of addressing these threats.

The political and economic tension coupled with the racial injustice movement, social media, foreign interference and COVID has created an atmosphere ripe with tension and mistrust. Several weeks ago, before the official end of the Afghanistan war, the threats posed by ISIS and the Taliban paled in comparison to the right-wing extremists domestically. Realistically, the threats are vast and impossible to completely predict. Our intelligence system is flawed and will likely never be optimized enough to prevent the majority of threats. Our mental health system is completely broken, unfairly burdening our first responders and human service workers and leaving the severely mentally ill largely unchecked and unregulated. Needless to say, the stack is piled against us. We will continue to see high threat events impacting our communities for the foreseeable future. Our leaders must recognize that every community is susceptible and that they have a responsibility to develop an operational capacity that meets the threat.

Capt. John Delaney
Capt. John Delaney is the program manager for Arlington County Fire Department’s High Threat Response Program, which focuses on building operational capabilities necessary for atypical threats including active shooter, explosive and fire as a weapon events. The program focuses on the development of multiagency, integrated police and fire response. Previously he was the team leader for the National Medical Response Team–National Capital Region (NMRT-NCR). The NMRT-NCR was a federally funded weapon of mass destruction response team which comprised of over 150 fire fighters, paramedics, hazardous material specialists, law enforcement officers, doctors, and nurses from within the Washington metropolitan region. Captain Delaney has participated in response to multiple large-scale regional and national emergencies; including the 1998 Florida Wildfires, 2004 Hurricane Charley, 2001 Anthrax Attack at the Senate Office Buildings, the September 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon and the Haiti earthquake of 2010. He is the former Chair of the InterAgency Board (IAB) and currently heads the National High Threat Institute. He is a graduate of James Madison University and in 2008 received his Master’s Degree in Homeland Security from the Naval Postgraduate School.

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