When That Day Comes

In an emotional plea for help at a safety conference, a firefighter asks safety managers to step up to the plate and help in the event of a terrorist attack.

The question is not "if," but "when," says Leonard Deonarine, CET, OHST, CFPS, who has some 30 years' experience as an emergency responder and firefighter. Another terrorist attack will strike the United States, and while first responders and citizens will perhaps be more prepared than on Sept. 11, 2001, much still needs to be done, he says.

Deonarine, who spoke at the annual conference of the American Society of Safety Engineers in New Orleans on June 14, noted that first responders "are guaranteed to be on the front row of the next terrorist attack. They'll think they're responding to a fire, an incident, a hazardous release," he says, but will really be responding to a terrorism event. And, in some cases, will themselves become the target of the terrorist, as secondary devices, created with the intention of killing them, are deployed. As an example, he cited a secondary device at the scene of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, a canister full of cyanide that was timed to go off after the first bomb exploded. The explosion from the first device was so great, however, that it destroyed the chemicals in the first device.

In addition to firefighters, other "first responders" could be supporting personnel such as disaster relief workers, employees from public works and utility companies, search and rescue teams including dogs and volunteers from the community who just want to help, as well as safety managers, trained in the hazards of workplaces. "Prepare yourself for where you are going" in the event of the next terrorist attack, Deonarine told his audience. "It's going to be a mess."

Large events, he said, span jurisdictions; have mass casualties; involve multiple sites and multiple organizations; include local, state and federal response; and include overlapping and conflicting authorities. And, with really large-scale events, things can quickly become confusing.

In Oklahoma City, for example, the fire department self-dispatched, because they heard the explosion, felt the blast and saw the smoke. They arrived at the gas company across the street from the federal building, because it look like it had been devastated by a blast, with its front windows blown out. Firefighters and EMTs began to work on victims when someone turned around as the smoke cleared and saw the true source of the blast. "They realized, 'Holy cow! This place isn't ground zero.' They have to find the worst of the worst, and sometimes that's not easy to find," says Deonarine.

So how do safety managers fit into the scene? Firefighters, EMTs and police officers are trained to enter a scene without thinking about personal risk. They hear "officer down" or "Mayday!" and they are off and running, says Deonarine. "I've seen police officers show up in bathrobes, slippers and gun belt following a call of 'officer down,'" he laughs. "They're ready to give someone a wood shampoo, a knock on the head. The culture is like a special forces team; to not leave anyone behind."

Deonarine, noting that deaths and injuries are on the rise for firefighters, claims that what is needed is a "reculturization." Firefighters and other first responders have to learn that sometimes, they have to walk away from a victim, that not everyone can be saved. They have to realize, he says, that "this person is at the end of his life; he is not a viable victim, and they cannot risk themselves."

"You have something we need," an emotional Deonarine told his audience. "You can help us change the culture" to one that is based in risk analysis. "We are abusing an expendable resource," knowing that firefighters and police officers and EMTs are always ready to enter a burning building or respond to a hazardous spill or weapons of mass destruction attack. "But I don't know if it's a renewable resource," he added.

"The next time a terrorist attack occurs, I need to have you in the system where I can call on you," he told his audience. "Thank you for choosing a career in the art and the science of protecting others."

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