More Training, Communications Funds Needed, First Responders Say

By Chelsea Todaro
During both the 9/11 attacks and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, police and firefighters had difficulties communicating as they tried to save lives. 

First responders urged Congress recently to provide more funding for stronger intelligence information sharing across federal, state and local levels and for training with new communication devices.

“Maintaining preparedness in the face of evolving risks requires mechanisms for identifying lessons from past response operations and applying them to improve preparedness nationwide,” Brian A. Jackson, director of the RAND safety and justice program, said at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing.

First responders’ tasks and missions are not getting any easier and require more extensive training, he said. Exercises and drills can be used to better inform officials on incident response operations for more effective preparation.

John Miller, deputy commissioner for the New York City Police Department, agreed with Jackson and said, “With every drill, with every exercise, we glean lessons that will be invaluable if, or more likely, when we are faced with one of these real-world challenges in our streets.” 

James Hooley, chief of Boston Emergency Medical Services, said communication among agencies of different cities and districts still needs improvement. Training with other districts will clear up confusion and provide better intelligence, he added.

“The more responders understand the protocols and priorities of other disciplines, the more they are able to work collaboratively in support of a shared success,” Hooley said.

First responders promoted utilization of shared protocols, rapid transport of injured patients, conducting prior meetings before large-scale events and having bomb-detection K-9s present. Miller said today, agencies require more resources to police events that once only required some crowd and traffic control.

“Whether it is the Israeli Day parade, the Super Bowl Boulevard events in Times Square this past February, or the New York City Marathon, each plan comes with a complex counterterrorism overlay that requires additional equipment, officers and investigators,” said Miller.

Part of communicating effectively with different districts requires first responders to be fully knowledgeable on new communication devices. “The more we are able to provide opportunities for personnel to train and exercise together, the more it becomes second nature,” Hooley said.

James Schwartz, chief of Arlington County (Virginia) Fire Department, said the federal government has spent approximately $37 billion since 2002 on grant programs to help state and local agencies develop the training, equipment and staffing resources required to meet threats.

One such program is the national incident management system, which allows authorities around the country to work together in response to an emergency. It can be used for any national incident, no matter the size or duration. It is focused on defining core terminology and resources, so that a fire chief can send out a request for help anywhere in the United States and have a reasonable expectation that it is being received, he said.

Improving information sharing between federal, state and local response agencies is another problem of communication. Receiving, analyzing and sharing threat related information between these partners is vital, but some agents are still reluctant to exchange information, Schwartz noted.

“The federal government needs to make sure that accurate information is being relayed to the first responders on scene so that they can make the appropriate decisions,” said Schwartz.

In 2012 congress established the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). It allocated $7 billion to start building a nationwide network for first responders’ exclusive use. Its goal is to have a police officer, firefighter or other emergency personnel use a single communication device and have it work interoperably no matter where a responder is located.

Completion of FirstNet is predicted to take 10 years, which gives responders time to develop expertise on new communication devices, said Schwartz.

Topics: Homeland Security, DHS Budget, DHS Policy, Disaster Response, Emergency Communications, Science and Technology, Science and Engineering Technology, Homeland Security

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