Emergency Responders Believe They Have Inadequate Protection

For Release

August 20, 2003

Police, firefighters, medical technicians and other responders to emergencies around the United States believe they have inadequate protection against some of the dangers they face, particularly terrorist attacks, according to a RAND study issued today.

“The majority of emergency responders feel vastly underprepared and underprotected for the consequences of chemical, biological, or radiological terrorist attacks,” says the study prepared by RAND's Science and Technology Policy Institute.

In trying to anticipate their response to terrorism, emergency workers “felt they did not know what they needed to protect against, what protection was appropriate and where to look for it,” the report says. “Such uncertainty frustrates efforts to design a protection program and acquire the necessary technology.”

The groundbreaking RAND study, which is one of the most in-depth ever conducted of emergency workers, is based on interviews with 190 first responders from 83 organizations around the nation.

The emergency workers—who respond to fires, vehicle collisions, medical emergencies, crimes, natural disasters, terrorist attacks and every other conceivable emergency—want better protective clothing and equipment, more compatible communications systems, and expanded training and information on safety practices and equipment, RAND researchers found.

“Men and women who choose to risk their lives to save the lives of others are telling us they need better protection, better safety training equipment and better coordination to do their jobs,” said Tom LaTourrette, lead author of the report.

The RAND study found that the level of protection available to emergency responders varies tremendously from service to service and from hazard to hazard.

For example, while firefighters are generally pleased with the fire protection afforded by their clothing, they are concerned that using this equipment can cause severe physical stress and overexertion and decrease their perception of imminent dangers. Also, firefighters feel that their protection is inadequate or inappropriate on assignments such as medical calls, some types of rescues or terrorism response.

Emergency medical service (EMS) responders feel inadequately protected against assaults and the hazards associated with terrorism. They commonly cited that lack of protective equipment specifically designed for EMS responders and the lack of organizations specifically directed at EMS responder protection.

Police officers told RAND that they feel especially exposed to assaults and automobile injuries during their everyday duties. They cited a need for lighter-weight, more flexible armored clothing that offers greater body coverage for officers on routine patrol. To reduce automobile injuries and deaths, police officers called for design improvements for patrol cars, such as dashboard-integrated computers, and improved driver safety programs.

For terrorism incidents, the RAND study found a very strong consensus among police officers that much of the needed protective equipment is not designed with the law enforcement mission in mind. Officers told RAND it is difficult to run, use weapons, apprehend suspects, and carry out other activities when wearing gear designed to protect them from chemical and biological agents.

Researchers found emergency workers said they could better face risks and protect the public with:

  • Protective gear that better meets responders' operational needs, is lighter and easier to work in, and is designed with more emphasis on the total protective ensemble to avoid protection shortfalls at component interfaces, such as between gloves and coats.
  • Improved equipment to detect and monitor hazards, including thermal sensors, physiological monitoring systems, and detectors for chemical and biological hazards.
  • Respiratory and chemical protective equipment appropriate for use by non-specialist responders who are the first to arrive at an incident scene
  • Communications equipment that is better integrated with the overall protective ensemble. Firefighters complained that their radios are difficult to use while wearing respiratory protection and gloves and can be unreliable in high-temperature environments.
  • Enhanced communication systems to handle the increased traffic and interagency coordination needed during major natural disasters, catastrophic accidents, and acts of terrorism. In such situations, instant communications are a matter of life and death.
  • Improved ways to handle, inventory, maintain, and effectively use and deploy equipment at disaster scenes. Even the best equipment is useless if it is left in storage when it is needed to rapidly respond to an emergency.
  • More information about the field performance of available protective technologies.

The report—titled “Protecting Emergency Responders Volume 2: Community Views of Health and Safety Risks and Personal Protection Needs”—is the second in a series of RAND studies on protecting emergency responders. The first report outlined the findings of a special conference of emergency workers who responded to the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the anthrax incidents that occurred during autumn of 2001.

Other authors of the latest RAND study were D.J. Peterson, James T. Bartis, Brian A. Jackson, and Ari Houser.

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