When tens of thousands of protestors descended on Madison, Wis., the city's fire department effectively coordinated a multijurisdictional response that included state and local law enforcement. It was able to do so because it planned ahead — and also because it had plenty of experience with large-scale civil-unrest events.
In February, an estimated 70,000 protesters marched on the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison in an attempt to stop Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to strip state workers of their collective bargaining rights. To manage the crowds, public-safety agencies converged at the Madison Fire Department’s command post that was set up to handle the response.
Chief Debra Amesqua is a nearly 30-year veteran of the fire service and is the city’s first female fire chief. She runs a career department consisting of 370 personnel that protect a population of about 208,000*. The department provides ALS transport and special teams’ services, including hazmat, scuba, high-angle rescue and emergency policing, among others.
In addition, the department is well-versed in managing large-scale events. Working the state capitol means protests are commonplace. And having the University of Wisconsin in the coverage area means the department must manage events such as Freakfest, a university-based Halloween event that draws more than 10,000 people, Amesqua said.
As a result, the fire department has civil unrest response plans already in place, Amesqua said. For example, during the union protests, the department’s first step was to activate a command post located inside its administrative building. The command post consists of meeting rooms and offices, connected by voice and video systems, where multiple police and fire agencies can converge for communications and operations planning. The first step when setting it up was to ensure that they had working telephones and video technology, Amesqua said. Then they looked at how radios used by the department interoperated with radios used by the different agencies in the region that might be brought into a multijurisdictional response; ordered phones and batteries for portable radios; and tested the televisions in the separate offices to make sure they could link into the video conferencing system.
“So our responsibility was to make sure they could communicate with each other and had the latest technology and video conferencing, because we had several branches of the emergency operation that were in different locations, including inside the Capitol,” she said.
The department uses the National Incident Management System for all of its events, whether small or large, and the protests were no exception, as the framework was used during the event to coordinate the response of multiple agencies, Amesqua said.
For instance, having a command post and NIMS already in place enabled the city, the university and the capitol police to work with the fire department, both in person and via multimedia systems, to manage the incident, which the department suspected would be large, Amesqua said.
“The minute we had the presentation from the governor, we knew that there would be people — particularly in the city of Madison — who would certainly come out and voice their opinion,” she said. “We have a long history of protests dating back into the sixties and a long history in the state of strong unions and collective bargaining and being an advocate of workers’ rights.”
It also was important to the response effort to ensure that outside agencies knew and understood the philosophy of engagement as it related to Madison and its citizens. Amesqua said that it was vital that all agencies agreed on how they were going to handle individuals. She said the goal was for law enforcement and other first responders to communicate clearly with union leadership and individual protesters to resolve differences as amicably as possible — but without arresting anyone.
“It is the culture and the mindset of the city of Madison,” Amesqua said. “The trick was bringing in agencies from all over the … area and making sure they understood the rules of engagement — telling them that even though they thought of arresting someone to step back, take a deep breath and see if they can resolve it without an arrest.”
* Corrected 7/27/2011
Medics in the Crowds
At the same time, the department deployed additional fire-based medics to ensure that protesters and law enforcement were served without compromising service to the rest of the city. Jim Keiken, an assistant fire chief at the department, managed the EMS/paramedic response. Keiken said that command staff determined early on that when protest crowds increased as the week continued, off-duty, paramedics working overtime would be brought in to staff the event. These medics were stationed at the Capitol for rapid response, while third-party ambulance companies provided transport to local hospitals.
Part of operations planning was to determine paramedic staging. It was decided to have them on foot around the Capitol, because crowds prevented vehicles from being used for a rapid response. As a result, medics were staged in safe areas amongst the crowd with law-enforcement support, Keiken said. Equipment was staged in the Capitol Police dispatch area.
“It was important they could maneuver in and out of those crowds to get to someone who needed critical care,” he said. “So we worked with police officers to make sure a paramedic could get to an individual right away and then escort them to the ambulance and send them to the hospital.”
Medics deployed in the field carried basic first-responder kits and two-way radios assigned to a special events channel, as well as ear-plug microphones to stave off background noise. The radios and microphones worked as expected, Keiken said.
“Sometimes it is hard to hear them, though, when you have a couple thousand people shouting, ‘what does democracy look like, this is what democracy looks like,'” he added.
Once paramedics reached the injured, they would radio back requesting specialized equipment, such as an EKG monitor, and it would be delivered to their location, Keiken said.
“That way, paramedics weren’t burdened with carrying all of the normal equipment through thousands of people,” he said.
Slips and falls constituted the majority of EMS calls during the protests, Keiken said. Chest pain also was treated.
“The crowd was a good crowd and were helpful to the first responders and didn’t interfere with the care provided by the fire department,” he added. “It was a respectful, easy-to-work-with crowd for us.”
As a result, fire medics found themselves spending most of their time monitoring law enforcement and other first responders who worked up to 20 hours straight, Keiken said. Noticing in particular the fatigue of law-enforcement officers, the fire department set up wellness checks that included paramedics testing their vital signs.
“Out-of-town law enforcement worked extremely long hours,” he said. “We were more concerned about the police officers and their well being, than we were with the protestors — who were very well organized. We set up an area where we were taking officers’ blood pressures, and we were watching how they were reacting to different situations.”
In addition, the department hired a third-party medical group with the resources, equipment and expertise needed to treat officers of more serious maladies. The effort included helping them to cope with the stress of managing such a large event. The provider’s services were paid for by the state of Wisconsin and not billed to the department, Keiken said. The move freed up fire paramedics for other calls.
“We ended up learning this was a much bigger task than just putting paramedics in charge of taking blood pressures,” he said. “So, we hired outside people to come in and truly evaluate the police officers as they were working. In addition, the emotional stress of the police officers was evaluated by professionals after we realized the [event] would last more than a few days.”
There were myriad lessons learned from the EMS aspect of the response, Keiken said, specifically that it takes others to ensure that a large-scale response runs smoothly. This includes working with a plethora of state management teams on operations and establishing mutual-aid pacts with other first-responder agencies — including law enforcement.
“The relationships we’ve built with law enforcement over the past 10 years, dealing with other mass-gathering events, gave us the experience of having an operational, multijurisdictional command post so we had lines of communication developed,” Keiken said.
Asst. Fire Chief Paul Bloom was responsible for ensuring that fire department communications were supported during the protests. He also worked with the city’s internal IT department to program and charge a cache of radios. Interoperable communications between agencies was a bit of a challenge because the fire department uses an 800 MHz trunking system, while other agencies on scene operate on VHF.
“So at the command post, we have VHF and 800 MHz, among other frequencies, set up,” he said. “The nice thing is that we are all in one room, so we can communicate directly and then get that message out to the field.”
Special-duty radios housed at the command post were pre-programmed and ready to be handed out. For this event, hundreds of police officers were scheduled throughout the day. The Capitol Police asked the fire department for additional radios and for help in managing communications, in order to set up everyone on the same system. Bloom said that he’d been replacing legacy radios, but had kept 60 of the older models. However, they needed to be programmed to police channels, so time and money became an issue.
Bloom found 60 chargers and sent them and the radios to 34-year veteran Keith Lippert, who is the communications operations supervisor for the city of Madison’s IT department, an agency charged with operating and maintaining radio systems for the city as well as for Dane County. The shop answers repair calls for any city agency throughout the county, including police, fire, transportation and public works departments.
The radio shop has a good relationship with the fire department and is charged with updating its mobile communication systems down to installing laptop mounting systems in fire trucks so they can “withstand abuse,” Lippert said. They also answer repair requests for the city’s trunked radio system. Dane County, which is in charge of the dispatch center, will migrate to another vendor’s trunking system in the next year and half, while the fire department will be keeping its current system, he added.
“It would be nice to be completely uniform but with the economy the way it is, we don’t want to spend the money unless we absolutely have to right now,” he said.
Work done by the shop is billed to the applicable agencies through the city’s accounting department, Lippert said. State and federal agencies are serviced free of charge during multijurisdictional events.
Lippert agreed that the large number of agencies that responded to the protests posed the biggest radio challenge, as the Capitol Police requested assistance from agencies throughout the county and state. State patrol is on a VHF system and the city has an 800 MHz trunking system, so effective response required that extra radios were available to personnel from outside the area. Bloom’s radios were programmed for the talkgroups that would be used over the 800 MHz network by law enforcement.
This request came up last minute because the protests developed virtually overnight. As a result, Lippert’s staff had to arrange the talkgroups and program the first radio. Then, the other radios were cloned, he said. A total of 25 hours were spent on the project spread across several employees.
For such events, agencies should keep a cache of radios on hand for emergency situations, even if it’s “a capital expense to have the radios just sitting there,” Lippert said. “But it’s good to have them when you need them.”
The radio shop charged Bloom more than $10,000 for the reprogramming work. In addition, field personnel had trouble hearing commands because of the noisy crowd. The Capitol Police and other agencies asked for earpieces and microphones. He didn’t have enough to give the state 60 of them, so he ordered more because “it’s so easy to miss a communication if you have that radio tucked in a pocket or a microphone hanging over your lapel,” he said. The earpieces cost $2,500, but that’s money the fire department will get back.
“The Capitol Police agreed they would reimburse us out of their budget,” Bloom said. “We have recaptured at least 80% of that funding from them.”
Bloom credits his fire department’s preplans for the successful response.
“We have always preplanned and looked at national events,” he said. “We’ve always said we need to spend that extra money to prepare. So don’t be hesitant to bring up developing a command post because it is so difficult to set up something in the middle of an event.”
Technology at the command post was a crucial tool, but in the middle of an event, even the best technology is worthless if it fails. That’s why Amesqua said that chiefs must have somebody available 24/7 from the IT department.
“Things break and then there can be complications from the amount of agencies we work with,” she said. “In this instance, it was critical to have somebody onboard who could help us with the computers as we were working with them.”
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