Terrorism & Homeland Security: Active-Threat Incidents—The Time to Coordinate with Law Enforcement Is Now

The fire service is an integral piece of the homeland-security puzzle. Chiefs must be advocates and partners and knowledgeable about the issues. To help you accomplish that, the IAFC's Terrorism & Homeland Security Committee is bringing you this year's T&HS series, offering an in-depth look at the current issues and the resources available through the IAFC. This is the fourth article in this year’s series.

It only takes a short amount of time in the daily news cycle to know that times have changed in our world. While many of these changes are good, many have a direct implication on fire and emergency service departments.

A day doesn’t go by without seeing a violent act that has occurred. Generally, these are from the use of a gun, but they can be with knives, swords or other weapons. In the old days, the fire service tended to rush in, not waiting for law enforcement. The belief was that we have a job to do, it’s dangerous and we’re the good guys so they won’t hurt us.

Over time, that evolved to where we began staging and ensuring the scene was secured by law enforcement before going in. The belief then was that the safety of our personnel is most important and that we shouldn’t place ourselves in danger when law enforcement is trained and equipped to handle those situations.

As times have continued to change and we now see mass shootings at an alarming rate, firefighters being targeted, delayed responses by law enforcement and greater data showing the effect of rapid treatment on survival rates, fire chiefs must once again reevaluate how we respond to incidents of active threats. This includes, but isn’t limited to, active-shooter incidents.

First and foremost, the fire chief must have a dialogue with local law-enforcement leaders. Reaching out to find out their position on this issue is key. You may find the police chief believes these incidents are their turf and the fire service should stay out. You may also find that the police chief has simply been waiting for the right opportunity to discuss the issue with you.

Like the fire service, law enforcement has been reviewing and adapting their tactics and procedures for these events. Most have intensified their training and are reaching out to other law-enforcement agencies. Many have already brought fire and EMS into the conversation, but if they haven’t done so, as they evolve they’ll need to.

Whether you have a progressive police chief or not, the fire chief must reach out and begin the dialogue. Everyone must be on the same page, whether it’s to stage and wait or moving to a form of rescue task forces.

After meeting with law enforcement, many departments are deciding to move to the concept of rescue task forces. The basic premise is that law enforcement moves quickly to neutralize an active threat. As the threat is contained in an area, other law-enforcement officers provide force protection for fire and EMS personnel to reach victims, provide limited lifesaving measures such as tourniquets and then rapidly extract them for rapid transport by EMS. While the area is believed to be safe, the complete area or building may not have been completely cleared by law enforcement and the active threat may still be occurring in other areas away from these victims.

An essential component to using a rescue task force is coordination with law enforcement. This must be done through the ICS. Because these are law-enforcement events, first and foremost they make the go/no-go decision on when and where to use a rescue task force.

This also requires fire and EMS to be part of the unified command system so they can best plan their operations. The use of rescue task forces can’t be safely done on the fly.

The rescue task force concept requires formal discussions with the law-enforcement agencies before an incident occurs. It requires training of the fire and EMS agencies in tactics and procedures specific to their roles. It also requires joint training between law enforcement and the fire and EMS agencies at both the command and operational levels.

There’s a wide variety of methods to create and use rescue task forces. Training and exercises are required because everyone must operate from the same page. There’s also a variety of decisions about PPE and equipment that may need to be made. These issues will be covered in future articles, but don’t delay. Reach out to your law enforcement counterparts today; it’s the first step. 

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