Local First Responders: America’s First Line of Defense

Recently, responders and academics have trumpeted multiple emergencies as the next big threat to American security. These new threats include avian influenza, massive hurricanes and devastating earthquakes. Global media produce hundreds of stories calling attention to these looming disasters.
It is important, despite the clamor, for first responders and citizens nationwide to step back and assess their local preparedness. It is largely forgotten that in all emergency-preparedness systems, most of the burden for preparation and response expressly rests with the lowest level of responder and the local community.
In order to assess community preparedness there are three areas that deserve close attention: first responder training; mutual aid and interdepartmental collaboration; and citizen preparedness.
Training
Since the adoption of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), first responder training has been in the national spotlight. Initially, NIMS was a nebulous set of regulations for incident command, training, resource management, performance tracking and results reporting.
Today, compliance requires taking four courses that introduce first responders to NIMS basics, the Incident Command System (ICS) and the National Response Plan. It is the responsibility of every first responder leader to introduce these basics to all local responders. Basic education beginning at the lowest level will create a comprehensive and functional national system for all preparedness and response activities. If each responder on Sept. 11, 2001, had operated within the same command structure and functional machine, many mistakes could have been avoided. The same will hold true until every agency is comfortable with NIMS and able to integrate fluidly into the Incident Command structure.
Collaboration
In the past, first responder departments had difficulty collaborating effectively during response and recovery efforts. While NIMS and ICS will improve this situation, communication and cooperative preparedness must also be enhanced.
Law enforcement departments are secretive about their actions and guard information closely. This unwillingness to share information, which is also true of many other first responder groups, creates far more problems than it solves. Something that may seem insignificant to a police officer can potentially be a major discovery for public health.
Establishing prior relationships between departments can mitigate this problem. Departments that work closely on preparedness planning, resource acquisition, training development and other daily activities will be comfortable interacting with one another.
Most importantly, cooperation will build trust and an intimate understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It is prudent to train the ranks of fire departments and law enforcement departments on NIMS and ICS together. Joint education will ensure that all regional first responders receive the same training and become familiar with one another from top to bottom.
Preparedness
Frank Borden, retired assistant chief of the Los Angeles City Fire Department, notes that untrained citizens are often first responders at major incidents. Chief Borden was influential in establishing the first Citizen Emergency Response Team (CERT) in Los Angeles in 1985. CERT programs have since developed in many places around the country.
However, despite the rise in popularity, CERT programs are only available to aid one-third of all US communities. In order to best protect citizens, the ­ percentage of communities with CERT programs must be increased. Training citizens will drastically improve preparedness in two ways: First, it will enhance response by decreasing the number of first responders engaged in simple tasks such as triage, first aid, stress reduction and victim support. Second, it will increase knowledge of potential emergencies among the general public.
Despite the availability of federal funding, resources and responders, it is absolutely necessary to organize local resources and train local personnel for major emergencies. A high level of local preparedness will only improve response and recovery efforts. While the national media banter about federal policy and federal action, the most important steps in emergency preparedness are occurring quietly in local first responder departments. Their progress will be closely scrutinized over the next months with the onset of hurricane season and the threatened appearance of the avian flu.
Citizens, states and the federal government must ensure that these responders are successful. HST
Ben Brunjes is director of The Performance Institute’s Law Enforcement Development Center. The center provides training, conferences, on-site education and consulting services to law enforcement and first responders nationwide and works to improve management, enhance performance and promote best practices. Its website is www.performanceweb. org. The author can be reached at brunjes@ performanceweb.org.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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