We all know what it’s like to be sitting at our desks, working on daily administrative tasks that require focus and persistence to finish. Secretly we're listening for the “big one” and paying attention when more than one tone goes off.
Even when we’re not specifically dispatched on an incident and it sounds like it’s going to be interesting, we're hoping the situation requires our supervision and leadership. We anticipate a scenario that challenges our personnel’s skills and abilities in a way that is impressive. We hope it challenges our minds as command officers, that we make the right decisions and at the end of the day that everyone goes home safely.
The “big one” comes in many forms, and what may be the most challenging incidents we encounter actually start out as simple problems. The “assist police” call may seem like a low-risk/high-frequency incident at face value, but we've encountered two such scenarios in our area in the past year where the situation developed into a potential chemical suicide.
In both cases, these were routine calls for the police department (PD) to do a welfare check on an individual, and they called us for help with forcible entry. Our personnel arrived and after a thorough risk assessment determined there may be cause for concern of a chemical suicide.
Chemical suicide incidents fall under the high-risk/low-frequency category. There's a wealth of information out there about chemical suicides and the extreme risk they pose to first responders, but most of that information has been directed at fire and EMS personnel. Only a limited amount of information has been distributed to police departments.
The two agencies present (PD and FD) at these events went to work mitigating what they believed to be their respective threats: the firefighters in full gear using SCBAs and the police officers with guns drawn. In a rapidly unfolding event with limited initial resources, the two agencies did what they’d been trained to do when presented with what they perceived to be an immediate threat: for PD, a mentally unstable person and potential barricaded gunman; for FD a possible hazmat incident.
In the second of the two scenarios, once inside the house, it quickly became obvious that the individual they were dealing with could be very dangerous, and both agencies intentionally retreated and regrouped. A perimeter was set up, all adjacent residences evacuated, the SWAT team was activated and several high-ranking police officials responded.
The fire crew on scene recognized the need for a chief fire officer and called for one. The operation lasted several hours and in the end, the individual took his own life with a gun.
While no emergency-services personnel were injured, a retrospective look revealed the gravity of the situation they originally encountered and the irrationality of how they initially handled it. All of the police officers and firefighters on the original dispatch were experienced in their field, and all recognized a sense of failure after the incident.
PD invited the FD to their incident critique, an impressive act of collaboration and proof that we have come a long way, but in that critique, we discovered there is still a lot of work to be done in the way of information sharing. Our roles as chief officers are ever expanding, and we are forced to know more about a larger variety of hazards that exist.
We also need to understand the perspective of our police counterparts and work to ensure that an all-hazards, all-phases, all-impact and all-stakeholders methodology of incident management with unified command is achieved.
Opportunities for improvement include:
- Building collaborative relationships with area police agencies
- Defining and understanding each other’s specific roles and responsibilities
- Sharing policies and procedures
- Comparing how multifaceted emergencies will be handled by the different types of agencies
- Training together and conducting drill scenarios
The greatest lesson learned for us was that in these high-risk/low-frequency calls, we need to unify and trust each other to find the best solution to the problem. Building that trust and those relationships before the big one occurs will ensure an efficient and effective approach to any incident.
Battalion Chief Emily Pelliccia is an 18-year veteran of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department. She has been a tactical medic for the city’s SWAT team for the past 10 years and currently serves full time as the department’s executive officer.
FEMA, through the Center for Domestic Preparedness, provides free training (including transportation, housing and meals) for law enforcement agencies at their Anniston, Ala., campus. There is an entire curriculum dedicated to law enforcement for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive incidents. Share this information with your police counterparts and ensure that when the next complex incident occurs, your police officers, firefighters and hazmat personnel are all operating on the same principles in an organized, coordinated and systematic fashion.