Future Chemical Challenges: Common Operating Picture Needed to Manage Common Problems

Insufficient funding, changes in technology, and inadequate staffing are challenges that chemical incident management must address many times – occasionally one at a time, but more often simultaneously. Today more than ever before, though, it seems that a common operating picture (COP) is necessary not only to deal with on-scene hazards but also to ensure that required emergency support functions (ESFs) are requested early and used efficiently. Fortunately, exercises based on the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) will identify the principal areas of improvement needed to foster a better understanding of responsibilities and tasks and thereby provide a number of opportunities to update response plans.

The National Incident Management System (NIMS), available on Lessons Learned Information Sharing (LLIS.gov), describes a COP as basically “An overview of an incident created by collecting and gathering information, such as traffic, weather, actual damage, resource availability, of any type from agencies/organizations in order to support decision making.“  In addition, NIMS confirms that the aforesaid incident overview must be made available to both on-scene and off-scene personnel.   Emergency operations centers (EOCs), hospitals, and other off-scene stakeholders in a chemical incident should be told specifically, for example, what contaminants have been detected and what their effects might be.

Collaboration between leaders and information gatherers will provide a COP that enables ESF personnel to fully understand the nature of the primary and secondary hazards associated with a specific task within an overall incident scenario. Chemical Incident Management: Coordinating Onsite Response to Primary and Secondary Hazards – a lesson learned available exclusively on LLIS.gov – explains clearly how command personnel should coordinate their efforts, as soon as possible after arrival at an incident site, to address all of the hazards detected. 

One example: The Oakland venue for the 2010 California Statewide Golden Guardian full-scale exercise hazmat scenario simulated an IED (improvised explosive device) attack against a merchant ship tied up in port.  The ruptured vessel released a chemical that was both flammable and a respiratory hazard.  The hazmat units based at fire departments in the area were able to initiate on-scene hazmat response operations – but were not able to carry out waterside fire-suppression operations.  The fire suppression was in fact carried out – by using a mutual-aid agreement already in place with a fire department from a neighboring jurisdiction – but that phase of the exercise was not carried out in conjunction with the earlier hazmat efforts.  

Coping Not With One Incident, But Several

The summary of the Lesson Learned from that incident concluded, among other things, that a proper response to incidents involving more than one hazard requires that the assets needed to address all hazards simultaneously should be available from the start to ensure the safety of all personnel involved.  The Lesson Learned (also available on LLIS.gov) from Chemical Incident Management: Personal Protective Equipment for Primary Risk Environments within a Jurisdiction clearly states that police and police marine units: (a) established a security zone; (b) assisted fire assets with rescue operations; and (c) provided on-scene first aid.  However, those response units did not have individual protective equipment (IPE) available to protect them from the respiratory hazard.  As a result, those personnel without IPE obviously might have been dangerously exposed during the incident, despite their collective best intentions to be a helpful asset in the exercise scenario.

In the event of a chemical release, a COP also would help hospitals prepare more adequately for patient intake and optimal decontamination operations.  Here, unexpected reality rather than a planned exercise provides the Lesson Learned. On 7 July 2005, four suicide bombers detonated explosive devices on London’s above-ground bus and underground train systems.  One hospital in relatively close proximity to one of the underground train stations was unaware that a bombing had occurred until paramedics arrived asking for assistance and equipment.  However, because that hospital did not have an emergency department, it was not on the incident notification list.  Nonetheless, the hospital’s clinical staff set up a field hospital to treat injured victims, and carried out their unexpected responsibilities extremely well – the details are discussed in the LLIS’s Incident Management: Alerting Hospitals in Close Proximity to a Mass Casualty Incident. (London city officials later changed their emergency plans to require that all hospitals in the vicinity of such incidents be promptly notified.) 

Another LLIS lesson learned – Chemical Incident Response: Ensuring that Contaminated Victims Receive Timely Trauma Care – points out that patients must be provided both timely decontamination and treatment to meet the established goal of getting the patient to an appropriate medical facility as soon as possible.  In addition, the Umatilla Community Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP) Exercise 2007 after-action report concluded that a “delay in treatment beyond 60 minutes significantly increases mortality from trauma and agent exposure.”  A COP with properly designated treatment facilities would have established the need for rapid transport to a facility with advanced life support capabilities and equipment available. 

To briefly summarize: Chemical-incident responses are complex in nature and require expertise, resources, and manpower. Whether during an incident or an exercise, therefore, all of the personnel involved must ensure that a COP facilitates the flow of information both up and down to every level of operation to ensure that all responders are thoroughly familiar with not only the mission goals but also their individual tasks.  A COP helps to ensure not only the availability of the additional resources needed to augment local capabilities but also the requirement that all of the staff involved receive the information they must have to reach the level of optimal readiness required. Exercises carried out to upgrade the readiness required to cope with all-hazard incidents will enable jurisdictions to identify the specific areas where greater attention is needed and thereby ensure that the plans postulated provide an optimum outcome whenever actual incidents or disasters, natural or manmade, occur without warning in the future.

Michael E. Forgey

Michael E. Forgey is an outreach and operations analyst for Lessons Learned Information Sharing (LLIS.gov), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency’s national online network of lessons learned, best practices, and innovative ideas for the nation's homeland security and emergency management communities He has twenty years of mixed military service currently as a Maryland Army National Guard Chemical Officer and seventeen years experience as a firefighter, responder, and subject-matter expert. He also serves as an All-Hazards Safety Officer for the Baltimore Region Type III overhead team, and is a hazmat technician, specialist, supervisor, instructor, and evaluator. He received a bachelor’s degree from Penn State University.



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