Be prepared for terrorists both foreign and domestic

First responders are trained to respond as safely and expeditiously as possible. Upon arrival, they try to immediately remedy the situation, sometimes without completely surveying the scene or thinking about what led to the situation. This can be a deadly mistake.

Consider what could have happened in the aftermath of the deadly attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at an Arizona shopping center. The attacker had been subdued by bystanders before the arrival of the first deputy. However, the deputy and others did not immediately allow fire and rescue personnel onto the scene until they were positive there was not a second shooter; the law enforcement personnel were concerned about a secondary event.

In another recent attack, several officers were shot and the attacker killed at a Detroit police precinct. It appears the shooter entered a non-secured lobby and had direct access to personnel. Many agencies, including the one that I retired from, allow this. It is an example of a criminal event that may have been avoided if a threat assessment had been conducted and certain procedures were changed or beefed up.

These are just two recent high-profile events that highlight the need to be mindful of attackers who may want to cripple the efforts of first responders.

Becoming the target

In his homeland security text, “Threat Based Response Patterns for Emergency Services,” author Robert Mahoney says “In this country, responding to terrorism is an experience limited to a very few emergency services departments.” Because of the limited experience confronting terrorism, public safety first responders need to stay vigilant and aware of the possibilities more so on the homefront than overseas to manage the terrorism impact on the agency and its ability to respond.

If there is a domestic act of terrorism event or several events, many local public safety departments, even those with mutual aid agreements, may be severely overwhelmed. Those localities that rely on regional hazmat, tactical or other specialized teams may find that the agencies supporting those teams may refuse to or be unable to dispatch them outside of their primary jurisdictions. These teams may also become the target.

When most people think of terrorism, they think of foreign terrorists such as Al-Qaeda. But there could be a domestic terrorist threat as well, and for domestic homeland security it’s important to keep that in mind. A terrorist event does not always have to be directed at the federal government. The terrorist wants to change the ways things are done and wants to create the biggest message possible. The terrorist wants casualties.

An MSNBC report on Al-Qaeda’s pre-9/11 surveillance and planning noted that within the terrorist group’s intelligence was video footage and information on local fire houses and police stations. It is believed the details and other information collected was gathered so the actors or perpetrators could attack and disable the first responders. This would result in a second catastrophic event — not only for those who are injured, but for those who now have to rescue the rescuers and the injured that the initial response was to address. This increases the amount of personnel threefold as the initial rescuers now need to be rescued, tying up two sets of rescuers, and those initially needing assistance will still be in need.

How to be prepared

Most states have created fusion centers. These are depositories for terrorist and criminal threat information. The personnel assigned are a wide variety to include local, state and federal law enforcement. If it is not done, it may be wise to include personnel from local fire and rescue departments.

Inexpensive safety or security measures that could immediately be implemented can include putting a darkening shade on the windows of stations so outsiders are unable to look in and keeping all doors closed and secured. I would recommend window tinting of emergency vehicles such as police cars and fire apparatuses. I also suggest requiring a second key to vehicles that have a key operated ignition. That would allow the vehicles to remain running and be locked at the same time. I would recommend that a device be placed on apparatus with a keyless ignition, so it could not be placed in gear without activation of the device.

Where specialized teams are regional, agencies may want to look at establishing a more advanced or equipped team of their own or at least improving training. It may be a good idea to place specialized teams at multiple locations throughout the community to minimize a threat.

I would suggest that on a regional basis, someone is placed in a fusion center and there is a contact person with the Joint Terrorism Task Force or other task force if possible. If personnel are not invited, then I would suggest a liaison of some sort so necessary information can be obtained. I would also suggest that some sort of tactical training involving all first responders, such as firefighters, police, emergency medical services, public utilities, etc., be taught. This should occur in settings less formal and outside of typical exercises. On a local level, I would recommend a threat assessment and risk analysis be conducted as it pertains to the agency.

First responders cannot protect civilians if they, themselves, are not secure in their surroundings. It is important to be prepared for terrorists both foreign and domestic to manage terrorism impact and ensure first responders’ ability to serve and protect.

Thomas Harrison retired in 2009 with 23 years experience at the Virginia State Police, with experience in a variety of law enforcement training in national terrorism preparedness and counterterrorism. Reach him at