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9-1-1 Magazine: Managing Emergency Communications

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Apr 19th & Sept 11th: What have we learned?

Author: Tony Harrison/The Public Safety Group

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-10
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Rescue & Recovery at Oklahoma City (left) and World Trade Center (right).  FEMA News Photos

It has been ten years since the worst terrorist attack on the United States.  It has been sixteen years since the worst Domestic Terrorist attack in Oklahoma City.  These two incidents have taught us many lessons.  The problem is we have a short memory and are already forgetting the lessons we learned on those days.   It is your job, your responsibility to remember and god forbid if your jurisdiction is every attacked you will be ready to respond.  Another key element to remember is these lessons learned are transferrable to any major incident that your agency may face.

1) There are many people in the world who still want to do us harm.  Osama Bin Laden is dead but the threat is not gone.  There are numerous international terrorist that are planning to attack the United States as you read this.  The front line dispatcher has the ability to help prevent a terrorist attack.  If your agency receives a call that is suspicious and may have a link to someone planning an attack make sure the call is reported to your local Fusion center and Joint Terrorism task force.  Many dispatchers say it is not my job to do that.  An officer or detective should do that. You are wrong.  It is everyone’s job to report behavior of any person whose actions raise suspicion.  While we all understand the threat from outside our borders we still have a threat from inside our borders. There are a variety of right wing and left wing groups that pose a threat for terrorist activities inside the United States.  Currently the most active threat may be from the sovereign citizen groups. People from these groups have killed more than 30 police officers since the Oklahoma City Bombing.  Many of these people do not recognize government’s authority.  Some of talked about the use of violence to overthrow the US government.  We must remember that Timothy McVeigh was a US Army veteran who would end up killing 169 people in the Oklahoma City bombing. 

2) You must be ready to respond to disasters. Training in your agency must be an ongoing never ending process. The practice of minimal or no ongoing training in communications must stop. 

3) Communicate – It sounds so simple but many times we fail to communicate information.  In any large scale event moving information from the citizen who is calling 9-1-1 and providing the information to the person answering the call then moving the information to the person dispatching and the providing the information to the incident commander is critical.  The part where most agencies fail is moving the information back.  When the IC makes a decision it is vital that critical information be relayed on the radio to the dispatcher then to the call taker and then to citizens.  During any large scale incident citizens will call 9-1-1 in search of information.  It is vital that we provide citizens with accurate up to date information about what they should do.  Our greatest failure of this was on September 11 when the on scene commander had made the decision to evacuate the unaffected tower prior to it being hit.  People inside the unaffected tower who were calling 9-1-1 were told to shelter in place.  I am in no way blaming the dispatchers on duty because they provided the information that they were given but we must learn the lesson that critical decision like this made at a scene must be relayed to dispatch so we can relay the information to callers when they call seeking information.

4) Interoperability – This has been a key word during the past ten years.  Interoperability use to be a technology problem where one radio could not talk to another radio that was on a different radio band.   This is no longer the problem.  The problem we face today is in large amount political.  We now have frequency set aside by the federal government for agencies to use during disasters.  This will certainly be a major help in the response to disasters.   One major short coming of these channels is still many front line professionals have no idea about these frequencies and many communications centers do not have access to them in the center.  The key to interoperability in the first hours of an incident is what you do today during incidents is what you will do in the early hours of a disaster.  For example if you have a pursuit, armed robbery or other serious crime in your jurisdiction does the police officer two miles away in another jurisdiction have instant access to the information?  Do you broadcast these types of calls on a county wide or area wide frequency?  Are you able to communicate daily with a variety of agencies in your area without having to pick up a phone and call someone?  This type of operational interoperability is critical during disaster because during the first hour this is how you will communicate with the first emergency responders on scene at your agency.

If we are going to be ready to respond to the next terrorist attack we must learn the lessons of from April 19th and September 11th.  These lessons have been paid for in the blood of those died and those who responded.  It is unacceptable for us to not be ready.  Recently I was told of a story about a special forces solider who was being deployed to Afghanistan.  He told a local emergency responder to protect his six.  What this means is cover my back, protect my family.  It is our armed forces responsibility to fight to give us our freedoms but while they are fighting for our freedoms it is our solemn duty to protect his family from those who wish to do us harm.  It is your duty to protect those freedoms. 

Tony is the President of The Public Safety Group.  He has more than 25 years of public safety communications experience.  Tony is a national known speaker and trainer. Tony spent 9 years with the Oklahoma City Police Department’s Communications Division and was the supervisor on-duty during the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building.  He also holds the distinction of Emergency Number Professional (ENP) from NENA.

Additional Sept 11th 10-Year Anniversary coverage

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