According to Paul Wilkinson, a British scholar and author on terrorism, “Fighting terrorism is like being a goalkeeper. You can make a hundred brilliant saves, but the one shot people remember is the one that gets past you.”  

Despite the best efforts of those tasked with preventing and/or responding to acts of terrorism in the United States, the underlying assumption is that it is not possible to deter, thwart, stop all attacks against all potential targets. One shot – maybe more than one – is going to get through. There is much speculation and discussion about what that shot will be, but the days of “what if?” thinking have shifted to “when and where?”

This is a subtle alteration, perhaps, but it reflects the widespread reality that almost everyone now feels vulnerable. Moreover, when another large-scale event does happen, the strategy will instantly shift from prevention and planning to consequence management – i.e., taking care of the sick and injured and dealing with other incident-driven priorities.

For that reason, all of the nation’s emergency-response agencies must accept a simple fact – namely, that if an incident has widespread impact, it is unlikely that a single jurisdiction will be able to handle it alone, without outside help. Even if the event is manageable within the jurisdiction, the post-incident onslaught of interested and responsible agencies, and the print and broadcast media, will swamp all but the largest jurisdictions. Either way, a large-scale catastrophic incident or event, whether natural or manmade, is certain to attract a tidal wave of people ranging from first responders from neighboring jurisdictions to curious onlookers.

One Question, Twenty Answers

The preparations for responding to a large-scale emergency must therefore be approached from a global perspective. And the cornerstone of that perspective must revolve around a key concept: interoperability. If one were to ask 20 different emergency responders to define the term interoperability there would be 20 different answers, and maybe more. Some responders consider interoperability to be the ability to talk on a common radio frequency. Others look at it as the ability to provide and/or receive assistance during a larger than normal emergency.

However, interoperability in the emergency-response community should be viewed in much larger terms. True interoperability is, among other things, the ability of different agencies to work together before, during, and after a specific catastrophic incident. More specifically, working together includes joint training, the ability to communicate across the board, an interconnected cache of equipment, and the development and use of common operating procedures.

Essentially, therefore, interoperability means the creation of a complete response mechanism that may encompass entire geographic regions. Every component and agency of the domestic-preparedness community–fire and police departments, emergency medical services (EMS) teams, public health officials, local, state, and federal decision makers, even the military – will have important roles to play in the response-and-recovery phases of a major incident. And all should and must be willing to work together in all ways and at all levels of government.

In addition to maintaining an open attitude toward cooperating with the appropriate agencies in a particular jurisdiction, the key to creating interoperable systems is centered on sound planning and training. The planning phase will get representatives of all agencies involved together at the same table to determine what equipment and resources are available as well as what are needed to meet various types of emergencies – and how to effectively manage those resources to get them to the scene of a specific incident as quickly and effectively as possible.

Attitudes, Abilities, and a Mutual Level of Trust

The preplanning phase of consequence management also should be used to determine: (a) who, or what agency, will be in charge of each task or operation at the scene; and (b) how the various people and agencies involved will communicate with one another. The communication hardware is particularly important, because – as anyone in the emergency-response field knows – ineffective communication is the Achilles’ heel of most large-scale incidents.

Communication, however, is more than radios and common radio frequencies. Effective communication is best achieved when there is a certain level of trust between and among the people representing the individual agencies responding to a specific incident. The best radios in the world will not overcome a negative attitude, or create the ability to rely on the person on the other end of the conversation.

Individual and team training, along with full-scale exercises, will work the bugs out of the system before an incident take place. Field scenarios offer the opportunity to make mistakes – and to correct those mistakes before the real-life consequences are on the line.

A good place to start cooperating is in the field, where teamwork and communication between responders is vital. Here, a widely used military axiom serves as the motto for interoperability, as least when it comes to working in the field: “Do in war as you practice in peace.” The concept certainly makes sense. Like it or not, the first responders of numerous agencies will have to work together to cope with major disasters, so should prepare themselves with that concept in mind.

Bad Habits Die Hard

There are certain areas of the country where successful interagency cooperation and planning already exists. For the most part, however, the nation’s emergency-response community remains “kingdomized.” Except at the local level, many of the nation’s fire and police agencies still have not formed effective working relationships, and public-sector EMS providers are often relegated to back-seat roles in preparedness and response activities.

Of course, some of the barriers preventing various agencies from cooperating with maximum effectiveness are based, at least partially, on culture. Police and fire agencies, for example, operate differently. Most police units work independently, either as individuals or in two- or maybe three-person teams. Ambulances, to some degree, operate in much the same fashion, with one or two persons making their own decisions on almost every call they respond to.

Firemen work under a typically very different scenario. Every day, fire departments across the country respond to incidents requiring assistance from multiple units, and frequently use some type of incident command system.

Over time, the response patterns and habits of the various preparedness communities become ingrained. When large-scale incidents happen, and the stress level increases, it is common to revert to known habits and training. If working and training with other agencies is not something a responder is accustomed to, it may be unreasonable to expect that he/she will function in an unfamiliar management structure, and/or take on responsibilities that are not already second nature.

The Architecture of Effective Training

If regional agencies avoid training together as a collective force, there is a low probability that their collective, and cooperative, response will be successful. Essentially, therefore, one of the most important goals in creating a truly interoperable system is to shorten the response window to a rapidly escalating incident. When an incident happens, there is an urgent need for sufficient resources to arrive on the scene in a timely fashion – and, insofar as the personnel assigned to the scene are concerned, to get to work immediately.

Frequent and effective training is the key to creating these capabilities.  If all of the response agencies that are called out know their individual roles, and if the communications architecture is in place both to summon the responders and to allow them to communicate, the collective-response mechanism should come together much more quickly – and should be significantly more effective.

To summarize: Interoperability means more than just talking.  It means establishing a joint training environment in which each critical response component buys into, participates in, and understands the overall operational plan and tactical objectives. It means that successful collaborations depend as much on the proficiency of the people involved as on the hardware components and technologies available.  Essentially, interoperability is more than computers and common radio frequencies; it is people, and how they use the equipment and technology.

Rob Schnepp

Rob Schnepp is division chief of special operations (ret.) for Alameda County (CA) Fire Department. His incident response career spans 30 years as a special operations fire chief, incident commander, consultant, and published author. He commanded numerous large-scale emergencies for the Alameda County (CA) Fire Department, protecting 500 square miles and two national laboratories in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. He twice planned and directed Red Command at Urban Shield, the largest Homeland Security exercise in the United States. He served on the curriculum development team and instructed Special Operations Program Management at the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Academy. He is the author of “Hazardous Materials: Awareness and Operations.” He has developed risk assessment, incident management, and incident command training for Fortune 500 companies, foreign governments, and U.S. national laboratories.

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