RAND-NIOSH Study Says New Approach Needed to Protect Emergency Responder in Terrorist Attacks and Disasters

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June 16, 2004

Better planning, training, coordination and management procedures are needed to protect emergency responders at the scene of terrorist attacks and disasters, according to a study issued today by the RAND Corporation and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

The study proposes a new approach that would make protecting the health and safety of emergency responders – including police, firefighters and ambulance crews – a key priority in coordinating the overall response to terrorist attacks and major disasters.

Currently, each agency that sends emergency responders to an incident takes responsibility for safeguarding its own workers. Because terrorist attacks and major disasters often draw emergency responders from several departments in nearby communities – with different operating procedures, communications systems and response plans – coordinating efforts to protect workers is difficult, the report says.

The study recommends enhanced preparedness planning to assure that all emergency responders to an event can be protected within the Incident Command System, the standard overarching management structure used in disaster response and called for under the newly established National Incident Management System. This would prevent different departments from wasting valuable time trying to come up with ways to protect workers on a case-by-case basis at each emergency scene.

The report is titled Protecting Emergency Responders, Volume 3: Safety Management in Disaster and Terrorism Response.

“The challenges posed by the new threats of terrorism and longstanding threats from other major disasters requires a new approach to protecting the safety of emergency responders,” said Brian Jackson, a RAND researcher and lead author of the report. “Protecting the safety of emergency responders needs to be as much a concern at the outset of an event as battling the problem.”

“Every time emergency responders take action, they put their lives on the line,” Jackson added. “We can’t eliminate those risks, but we can do more to manage the risks and protect our nation’s critical first responders.”

“At the scene of major disasters, responder safety is a collective responsibility for the multiple response agencies and organizations involved,” said NIOSH Director John Howard, M.D. “We look forward to working with our many partners to make this new report an important resource for planning and preparation.”

"Every year an average of 110 firefighters lose their lives while responding to emergencies," said Congressman Curt Weldon (R-PA), co-chair of the House Homeland Security Caucus, who joined Jackson and Howard at a Capitol Hill briefing today on the RAND-NIOSH report. "At least half of those deaths could have been prevented if first responders had technology available to disclose the health and location of these men and women. In the event of a major catastrophe, we can not afford to lose our first responders to careless and preventable hazards. State, local, and federal agencies must begin to look closely at the health and safety of our most important assets in America's preparedness against terrorism."

Other recommendations in the report call for:

  • Developing a cadre of highly trained disaster safety managers who can lead coordination between agencies. Drawn from local response organizations, these people would know their localities and be quickly available. They would also have the broad-based understanding of disaster situations and crosscutting expertise in safety management that is needed to supervise multi-agency safety efforts.
  • Incorporating safety and health issues more realistically into joint disaster exercises and training, to make sure that safety management is more than just a training footnote.
  • Preparing in advance the types of expertise and other assets needed to protect responder safety. This would help insure that safety-related reinforcements will be able to be used quickly and efficiently in an ongoing operation.
  • Developing common standards and guidelines for responder training, hazard assessment, responder credentialing and protective equipment to assure that responders have the knowledge and tools needed to accomplish their missions safely.

The importance of protecting emergency responders was underscored by the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. The difficulties of managing emergency responder safety in the New York City attack led to ad hoc arrangements to coordinate worker safety efforts.

While the efforts provided important examples of coordinated approaches to safety management, the ad hoc arrangements took days to organize and their effectiveness suffered because they had not been included in preparedness planning, researchers found.

The importance of protecting the safety of emergency responders is made more immediate by the threat of terrorism, which raises the possibility that responders might be called to multiple events over a short period of time.

The report says leadership to make the needed changes should come from all levels of government. For example, an effective planning effort will require a combination of federal, state and local officials to develop national standards. And as in the National Incident Management System, cooperation between officials at all levels of government is needed to put many of the changes in effect.

“There already are many efforts that focus on some of these issues,” Jackson said. “In the end, what is required is that people from all levels of government buy into the concept.”

Funding for the study was provided by NIOSH, which is part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The project included extensive involvement of emergency responders from organizations that responded to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, or to major natural disasters such as the Northridge earthquake and Hurricane Andrew.

The report is the third in a series of RAND-NIOSH studies on protecting emergency responders. The first report reported the findings of a special conference of emergency workers who responded to the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax incidents that occurred during autumn of 2001. The second documented the needs of emergency responders to improve their safety and protect their health.

Other authors of the latest report are John C. Baker, M. Susan Ridgely and James T. Bartis of RAND, and Herbert I. Linn of NIOSH.


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