The sun rises on a crisp winter morning in a bustling U.S. metropolitan city. People and traffic are beginning to move and subways and other public transportation systems soon will be full of commuters.
In a dingy apartment in the heart of the city, five people say a short prayer and leave, each making his way to pre-designated points along the route of the city's subway system. Each wears a heavy coat that easily conceals the vests worn underneath, vests filled with enough explosives to rip through crowds and subway cars.
By 8 a.m., the first of the suicide bombers descends the steps into the subterranean maze that twists below the city. His brothers-in-arms make a similar walk and have soon made their way deep into crowds of unknowing commuters.
One minute later, as a train enters the station, a blast rips through the tunnel when the first terrorist detonates his bombs. In quick succession the others detonate theirs; within five minutes, the attack is complete.
You and your community are faced with a mass-casualty incident. The numbers of dead and injured will be overwhelming; the destruction to property and infrastructure will be staggering. The entire emergency response community will be engaged for a protracted period of time.
Your responsibility as a fire chief is to contemplate scenarios as radical and devastating as this one. By constructing the worst scenario you can imagine for your locality, you can work with the entire emergency management community to assess your ability to prevent, prepare for, respond to and recover from a catastrophic terrorist event.
Action — reaction
Is the destruction caused by a terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction so catastrophic that we can't hope to respond effectively, or is it possible for us to mitigate such an incident successfully? Ultimately, the effectiveness of our response will depend on how well we have planned, trained and exercised, and on whether we respond using accepted protocols.
During a catastrophic terrorist event, you will be addressing many issues that will test your decision-making skills. You will be forced to answer critical questions and make potentially life-or-death death decisions in a timely manner. For instance, at what point will you have enough information to determine that the incident is no longer routine and is a disaster? When will you transition from a single to unified command? Are you familiar with and do you play an active role in the planning process for a disastrous incident?
These and other questions are just the tip of the iceberg. But you shouldn't panic — unless you have no answers! The National Incident Management System can be used on the local level to coordinate an efficient and effective response operation. NIMS can be used as an overall framework to guide your decisions in key aspects of disaster management. Interestingly enough, the structure of NIMS can provide answers to these questions presented here.
During a response, the top three response priorities remain life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation. Whether you instinctively or consciously incorporate them, these priorities drive your response strategies. When a disaster occurs, an organized approach is the key to a successful response. NIMS provides the structure for such an organized approach, and a successful response will flow from the familiar centerpiece of NIMS: the Incident Command System.
There's no doubt that you're familiar with ICS and its implementation. But the adoption of ICS is rudimentary; NIMS has changed certain aspects of it. Major changes include potential additions to the command staff and changing the name of the Planning and Intelligence Section to simply Planning. The term “sector” is no longer used. NIMS also provides for co-locating Intelligence and Information in any section, or adding a separate section for that function. NIMS touches on the importance of communications, asserting the need for equipment interoperability or the use of common terminology. Finally, NIMS formally introduces the concept of an area command to assist the IC with resource management.
With NIMS and ICS as the backbone for our response, let's look at the management issues before, during and after an incident.
Preparedness and planning
Development of a good Emergency Operations Plan with applicable annexes is essential to the success of any response. The EOP, normally developed by emergency management, should clarify organizational structures, roles and responsibilities of agencies and personnel within the jurisdiction. This can't be done in a vacuum. It's the responsibility of the individual response agencies (including fire) to provide that information to the authors of the plan through development of an applicable plan annex. The plan lays out general mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery protocols, but it's your annex and supporting procedures that delineate how you will respond to an incident.
It's also beneficial to familiarize yourself with the plans and procedures of other key players that will respond with you. Knowing their response tactics or strategies for an incident may help you to see areas in your plans that would benefit from revisions.
Once you've developed good plans and procedures, train your people. Training, combined with exercises, is the most effective way to prepare for an incident. Ensure that at a minimum, responders understand their individual roles during a response. Exercise those roles in-house, and then exercise with other responding jurisdictions.
People learn more by doing than by reading or seeing, which is why it's so important to practice responses as often as possible. Practicing with other responding disciplines allows participants to enhance those key relationships that were started during the planning process. Take active steps to meet other local authority figures across disciplines. Whether they're from public health, public works, the transit authority or the school administration, get to know their faces. First responders are more sure of an adequate and successful response when they respond with people they know and trust. Ultimately, when a real incident occurs, seeing a familiar face can save precious time and potentially make the situation less stressful.
The current picture of resource management has evolved to provide an established system with which incident managers from all walks are familiar. NIMS provides basic concepts and principles to aid incident managers in facilitating resources for response to a disastrous incident.
A communications plan that incorporates common terminology should be established. A communications plan consolidates information on all radio frequency assignments, establishing the most effective use of the communications equipment and facilities assigned to the incident. Common terminology includes using plain language and having designated titles and facility names established in advance across the board.
When you respond to an incident, regardless of size, establish a command structure using ICS. An organized command structure (single or unified) ensures the response will be safe and addresses the concerns of all responders, ultimately resulting in a successful response.
The concept of unified command is critical to the success of any major incident, especially one that expands beyond a single operational period. Unified command provides guidelines to enable agencies with different legal, geographic and functional responsibilities to coordinate, plan and interact effectively. As a team effort, unified command overcomes much of the inefficiency and duplication of effort that can occur within a large-scale incident. All agencies within the unified command structure contribute to the process of determining overall incident strategies, selecting objectives and ensuring accomplishment of those objectives.
A set of objectives developed by the unified command needs to be established to focus the response. According to, “Incident objectives are based on realistic expectations of what can be accomplished when resources have been effectively deployed. Incident objectives must be achievable and measurable, yet flexible enough to allow for strategic and tactical alternatives.”
Once the unified command has established objectives, they can be implemented tactically by the operations section chief. Those objectives that can't be accomplished during the initial operational period will be sent to the planning section to prepare for the next operational period. The planning section will coordinate any needed resources.
The activated Emergency Operations Center likely will handle calling for mutual aid resources, but you may already know what resources you need. However, you must be aware of the key concepts of the National Mutual Aid and Resource Management System and the 120 Resource Typing Definitions in order for resources to move quickly and more efficiently to support you as the incident commander. The ability to select the appropriate resources is essential for accomplishing the job effectively and for ensuring resource safety and cost efficiency. The less time you spend working out the kinks, the more effective your response.
You also will have to consider how you will manage that period of time when your resources are completely taxed and overwhelmed and relief is hours or even days away. Realistically, there's a potential for a gap between resources in service and resources that will soon be available. Invariably you will get through the situation by thinking on your feet and just “holding the fort” until reinforcements arrive, but if you have planned for this possibility, you will be better prepared to improvise.
Communication and information management
The largest overarching issue that managers face is problems with maintaining communications during a disaster. Contact information, the communications plan (especially for planned events) and communications with the EOC are essential, and the failure of any can be catastrophic. It's important that our focus not be limited to the equipment aspects of communication; we all have been working diligently on interoperable systems with built-in redundancies, but we know that in a major event there will be problems, and we must be prepared to circumvent them.
The other daunting communication issue lies in our ability (or at times, inability) to communicate across disciplinary lines. It will be imperative that fire, law, EMS and others are able to stand side by side to effectively and efficiently manage and direct our responders. A terrorist event can't be managed by a single discipline. It will take everything our communities have available — and then some — simply to stabilize the scene and begin to mitigate the consequences. We must communicate among ourselves to facilitate this action.
Demobilization of resources is as important to the incident response as calling for and receiving resources. The purpose of demobilization is to facilitate the rapid return of incident response resources back to service. Demobilization, if executed correctly, will keep costs low and recovery periods short.
Looking back at the EOP, you should ensure that it will provide information concerning recovery actions, such as post-incident public awareness and strategic priorities to restore infrastructure. Restoring the infrastructure can serve as a public relations tool, showing the public that response leaders are working to resolve problems, protect the public and control the situation. Life must go on, and an effort should be made to turn things back to the way they were before the incident. This will make citizens more comfortable to carry on as usual.
As a fire officer or emergency manager, your focus should be on the importance of plans and established procedures to a successful response; focus as well on the value of training. Be familiar and accept openly the concept of unified command, because the sooner you implement unified command, the better. You need to know what's likely to come your way in terms of resources and the time it may take for them to get there. And once they're there you should have a system in place to integrate them seamlessly.
In an incident of disastrous proportions, you can expect chaos at the scene and everywhere else indirectly affected. It's important to remember the NIMS framework and standard for response in the face of that chaos.
Clint Brown is an instructor with the Emergency Services Training Institute, College Station, Texas.