View Full Version : First to fight, last to be equipped

08-21-03, 05:57 AM
First to fight, last to be equipped

U.S. Marines are rightfully proud of their pledge to be the "First to fight." Well-trained and well-equipped, they have done outstanding service on scores of foreign shores. However, their counterparts in the homeland the policemen, firemen and emergency medical service personnel who will be the "First to fight" in any terrorist event are considerably less well-prepared, according to a study released today by the Rand Science and Technology Policy Institute.
Rand surveyed almost 200 first responders representing more than 80 organizations across the nation. It found that "The majority of emergency responders feel vastly under-prepared and under-protected for the consequences of chemical, biological or radiological terrorist attacks." There are a number of reasons for those deficiencies, largely centered around three areas communications, equipment and training.
Communications failures between individual first responders and different agencies added significantly to their losses on September 11. According to Rand, those problems are festering among all first responders. One problem is unreliable signal transmission many current radio systems lack the strength to penetrate buildings and other obstacles. Even when individual first responders can talk to one another, they cannot coordinate with their fellows from different agencies, a consequence of incompatible radio systems. While authorities have encouraged first responders to upgrade to higher frequency systems, which have higher penetration and permit better intra-agency cross talk, they are so expensive that few municipalities can afford them. As it stands, the average fire department can equip only about half of its personnel on a given shift with portable radios.
First responders also need better equipment. Most considered themselves to be "vastly under-protected" against weapons of mass destruction. While many jurisdictions have separate teams for handling bombs and hazardous materials, few have the capacity to handle the integrated responses required by unconventional weapons. Since there is a great deal of uncertainty about what equipment is needed to respond to the vast range of potential threats, municipalities are procuring equipment on an almost ad hoc basis. For instance, "departments are . . . acquiring chemical and respiratory protection without having a clear understanding of what exactly they are preparing for or how to prepare for it," the report said.
Emergency medical personnel reported that they felt particularly vulnerable to weapons of mass destruction, which is not too surprising considering that they already lack equipment specifically designed for their job. Nor, by and large, have EMS personnel developed specific hazard-awareness protocols or done the training that should accompany it.
Other first responders echoed the call for additional training on safety equipment and practices. "Without specialized training, there is a limit to the ability of non-specialized responders to take appropriate actions, even for such basic functions as hazard awareness," the report said. That almost certainly means additional casualties, since non-specialists will be the first on the scene in any terrorist attack.
Aside from providing additional funding for equipment and training, legislators also could take a more active role in standard setting, particularly for the equipment of EMS personnel. Appropriators also could encourage the research and development of such equipment with the goal of making it more protective, more interchangeable and more integrated.
Just like the Marines, first responders will be the first to fight in any terrorist event. They proved their valor on September 11. They shouldn't go into the next battle under-equipped or under-prepared.