It will take the DOD at least four days to gather resources after a disaster hits. Here's what to do in the meantime.
U.S. fire departments have spent millions of dollars on chemical-, biological- and radiological-detection devices. In fact, places like Chicago and New York have procured mobile hazmat labs, handheld chemical detectors and interoperable communications devices to identify hazards and share data across local agencies. It's a good move, because if a large-scale disaster hits an area, federal help would be days away.
According to a recent Q3 2009 Government Accountability Office report, it would take at least 96 hours for the Department of Defense to mobilize and deploy to a large-scale incident. That means local first responders would have to manage the scene for four days before federal assistance arrived, said Davi D'Agostino, the GAO's director of defense capabilities and management team.
“Some people thought 96 hours was an awfully late time if there really is a mass causality or major incident,” she said.
D'Agostino said the report is the first of two analyzing federal agencies' overall capabilities to assist local agencies with chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosive (CBRNE) incidents in the United States. The report examined the National Response Framework under whichis tiered. Local governments and agencies typically respond immediately following an incident. Then, states provide assistance with their own resources or that from other states through mutual-aid agreements. The federal government then provides assistance to states if requested.
Lack of Coordination
The DOD plays a crucial support role in managing CBRNE incidents because a catastrophic incident occurring within the United States would require a unified, national response, D'Agostino said. The DOD must coordinate the movement of its own resources, as well as those from theand the . This includes various CBRNE response units from the National Guard.
Coordination, the report found, was lacking. In addition, researchers found that the DOD still needed to define its role and timeframes for a response to an incident on U.S. soil. As a result, the GAO report mandated the DOD improve its preparedness plan, with an immediate request to establish interim goals.
“Our recommendation is that they establish some interim goals, objectives and planning assumptions … so the agency knows what to bring and when,” D'Agostino said. “Right now it is undefined as to when [local agencies] need the DOD to show up at an incident.”
In the meantime, D'Agostino said local first responders are going to hold down the fort after the immediate incident response. As a result, departments need to reexamine their expectations that the DOD must respond quickly. It's just not going to happen.
“I think there's an impact on state and local emergency response community. …” she said. “In fact, maybe departments should invest more, and think more about having more local capabilities and redefine requirements based on the situation that the DOD is in right now.”
It is true that local firefighters must play more of a role in preparing for a disaster — even combating terrorism — said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director of terrorism research for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Gartenstein-Ross has studied firefighters' role in counter terrorism and recently testified on Capitol Hill on trends in this area.
“Fire departments should consider, in places where there are significant terrorist threats, looking at the intelligence function of fire departments,” he said.
Gartenstein-Ross recommended firefighters first look at terrorism in terms of “preventive intelligence.” However, in doing so, they must ensure that intelligence-gathering doesn't blur the line between the roles of police and fire.
“For example, if there is a suspected bomb or a terrorist cell operating in a building, you don't send the firefighters in to do an inspection to get around a search warrant,” he said. “Instead, fire departments must work constitutionally.”
Gartenstein-Ross said firefighters should be able to recognize suspicious activity during the course of their routine duties. Firefighters are unique, because such personnel have nearly unfettered access to structures and buildings. In addition, they are well-trained in hazmat storage and other hazards, so they are in a good position to report to police suspicious activity or potential weapons of mass destruction.
However, the challenge is creating a pipeline of information from the streets to all public-safety agencies. At a local level, fire departments can begin by developing information-sharing sessions with other agencies. Gartenstein-Ross pointed to New York City. Although unique because of its size and scope, the FDNY has partnered with local, state and federal agencies on counter-terrorism and disaster-preparedness plans. It also trains firefighters to participate in intelligence training and sharing.
Training was mandated in the city's 2007 FDNY Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness Strategy, an outline for the department's critical-response tactics used to combat and address terrorist attacks or large-scale emergencies. The strategy defined the modern-day mission of the FDNY; identified the operational adjustments made since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001; and explained how the department can evolve to meet the demands of the future.
Now, the fire department has a clear picture of its current role, said Joseph Pfeifer, FDNY's chief of counter-terrorism and emergency preparedness, whether the response is to an everyday event or one that is much larger in scope.
“Any terrorist event will have a fire, have victims or will have a CBRNE,” he said. “Any explosion would cause a building collapse where people are trapped, so these everyday skills are simply enhanced during [a disaster].”
The FDNY strategy also mandated an enhanced information-sharing network among city, state and federal agencies and the development of risk assessments for specific locations around the city, Pfeifer said. In addition, the department must maintain a tiered-response system with increased training for firefighters and EMS members to respond to hazmat incidents across the city and 560 miles of shoreline.
To meet the strategy's goals, the department examined possible terrorist scenarios in detail, equipped personnel with radiological detection devices and retrofitted SCBA to be CBRNE-complaint. In addition, fire boats were purchased because of possible threats on New York Harbor. Fire personnel have been trained on each piece of new equipment and exercises have been conducted within the department, as well as with various security partners within the region, Pfeifer said.
“The department drills with mutual-aid partners, such as with New York Harbor, the Coast Guard, the New Jersey fire departments and law enforcement, among others,” he said.
In addition, two years ago a new initiative was created in conjunction with the DHS, Pfeifer said. It is an information-sharing concept between the fire service and the intelligence community. This includes having fire service leaders on various committees. For example, an FDNY fire marshal sits on the Joint Terrorism Task Force and other leaders attend FBI briefings.
“I just recently visited DHS and a number of agencies in Washington, D.C., and was briefed on the current threats facing our nation,” Pfeifer said.
However, Pfeifer is no fool. He knows federal resources will take time to reach a domestic incident. So the FDNY plans as if it is the first and only responder by using the 50% principle, meaning that only 25% of its work force is on duty at one time. If an event occurs, the department can recall another 25%, so 50% of staff is working and 50% is on reserve.
“We know that within 12 to 24 hours we need to replace people, so we have in reserve another 50%, and are able to sustain our rescue operations over a period of time,” he said. “When federal resources come in at different periods of time we will be able to fit them into a system. Instead of a stop-and-go routine, it will be continual surge of resources.”
Same Danger, Fewer Resources
Outside of the city in White Plains, N.Y., there also is a fusion between fire and other agencies. Specifically, joint planning and preparedness meetings are held between city and county agencies. John Cullen, deputy commissioner of public safety for White Plains, said a city emergency planning council was formed about five years ago. The council includes representatives from fire, police, EMS, three hospitals and the Red Cross, and meets to review mutual-aid strategies. Such strategies are then practiced in a citywide annual drill.
The department also holds a computer statistics review meeting every Tuesday.
“We look at the whole operation for the last week, and [conduct] a 28-day and year-to-date analysis to address issues — so if police identify a housing issue, fire-prevention officers will pick up on that issue and can help them,” Cullen said.
Cullen said that to address CBRNE threats specifically, all Westchester County agencies met and established six emergency squads. The squads act as the first-response team for mass-contamination events until the full team is assembled. Each squad is allocated the same equipment, which is funded by federal WMD grants, Cullen said.
“Our focus is being tweaked by the latest acts or threats nationally and globally, so we try to keep on top of what is going on,” Cullen said. “So if the threat globally is a radioactive improvised explosive device, that's what we will be training on and equipping ourselves with tools to manage the incident.”
Besides the information sharing, the department trains with other agencies, including police, fire-rescue and WMD units. If the city offers a course in radiation monitoring for example, police, fire, technical rescue and EMS will attend the class.
“Whenever we do any WMD or terrorism training, all of our agencies are there and are involved. And it's extremely valuable when you actually do go out in the field, to the incident,” Cullen said. “Now … you can put a name to a face, people you've worked with while training.”
Part of what departments are faced with in the current economic climate is the need to do more with less, Gartenstein-Ross said.
“Terrorism is not less dangerous, but we have fewer resources available to combat it,” he said. “So leveraging all local and government resources is a positive thing and can be very helpful.”
CBRNE Training Tasks
- Be able to protect yourself from CBRN injury/contamination with the chemical-protective suit ensemble.
- Decontaminate yourself and individual equipment using chemical decontaminating kits.
- Perform first aid for nerve-agent injury.
- React to nuclear hazard/attack.
- React to chemical or biological hazard/attack.
- Be able to protect yourself from chemical and biological contamination using your assigned protective mask.
- Detect chemical agents using chemical detectors.
The GAO report, “Homeland Defense: Planning, Resourcing, and Training Issues Challenge DOD's Response to Domestic Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and High-Yield Explosive Incidents,” is available at www.gao.gov/products/GAO-10-123
Emergency Response Guidebook
Free CBRNE tools are available to local governments, including the Emergency Response Guidebook. The guidebook was developed jointly by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Transport Canada, and the Secretariat of Communications and Transportation of Mexico (SCT) for use by firefighters, police and other emergency services personnel who may be the first to arrive at the scene of a transportation incident involving a hazardous material.
It is primarily a guide to aid first responders in identifying the specific or generic classification of the material(s) involved in the incident and protecting themselves and the general public during this initial response phase of the incident.
The ERG is updated every three to four years to accommodate new products and technology. The next version is scheduled for 2012.
Copies are made available free of charge to public emergency responders through state coordinators. For more information, visit www.phmsa.dot.gov/hazmat/.