Dr. Randall W. Hanifen


By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest

Many of our recent mass shootings and other incidents necessitate the use of a unified command structure. But due to the infrequency of these events in many jurisdictions, unified command usually involves two commanders who stand next to each other and think about what the forces under their command should do.

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Anyone who has commanded a large event from the initial arrival knows the first few minutes are critical and dictate the outcome of the next three to four hours. Secondly, incident commanders know that the amount of personnel who are initially available to aid them is near zero unless an incident happens during the week and next to the police or fire headquarters.

Command Staff Often a Limited Resource for Incident Commanders

While many major metropolitan jurisdictions can place three to four fire/police department command officers at an incident scene, many suburban and rural jurisdictions are resource-poor, which contributes to a lack of quickly available command staff. This lack of properly trained staff may cause a single incident commander to become overwhelmed. As a result, that incident commander may miss or fail to track key information.

Often in non-metropolitan areas, the policies are less prevalent. Many decisions and the recording of those decisions are needed during the early parts of a mass shooting event.

Ever though many jurisdictions train for large-scale incidents such as mass casualty and active shooter events, the larger or more critical events do not actually occur on a regular basis. Even smaller events — such as gang shootings or bus accidents — might be infrequent or non-existent in some areas.

The Need to Understand Other Agencies’ Work

While there is often a friendly rivalry between police and fire departments, the people staffing these services often do not know where to begin another service’s operations for two reasons. First, police officers would not know that triage, treatment and transportation groups are needed at a mass casualty incident. That same service would also be unfamiliar with the work these groups do and why. Similarly, fire department personnel would not fully grasp the tactics police officers employ at an active shooter event.

The second reason is the technical language or jargon spoken by each department. For example, police officers may not understand the difference between a ladder and a tower used by a fire department. Similarly, police officers may not understand the difference between advanced life support (ALS) and basic life support (BLS) and what each of them does. Likewise, the fire department is likely not going to understand all Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) terminology.

Preparing to Help Incident Commanders from Other Services

But by being able to interpret commonly used jargon, first responders can help incident commanders log information. Also, by understanding the tactics and the cheat sheets used by an incident commander, that information can be logged in the correct location.

Next, helpers should be familiar with any command kits that may be used. Many organizations purchase or make command kits for each position. As you gain familiarity with other services’ functions, you can help by either passing out kits to the correct people or start using the kit if you are assigned a position.

At a mass casualty incident, have a transportation officer available as quickly as possible so that no patient is transported without first responders obtaining the proper information. Depending on the size of the scene, obtaining information may be initially difficult until a staging area is established and the transportation has a methodical approach.

By having an aide who can start tracking information, you can obtain the numbers of beds available at the local hospitals. When an understanding of what’s needed is accomplished prior to an initial call to hospitals, a fire, EMS officer or paramedic won’t have to call. Instead, their skillsets will be needed in triage and treatment areas.

Knowing the Other Side Improves Unified Command

Once commands are fully functional on both sides of public safety, many events are best managed through a unified command structure. Because you have taken the time to learn what tactics and methods are used by other first responders, you can be ready when it comes time to take action for your part in the event.

For instance, you may know that six officers are on duty and the first three officers are going without a medic to provide care at an event. However, the next three officers will each take a medic to form a rescue task force.

This strategy allows a fire/EMS incident commander to be ready with three medics and know that these medics will need logistical support for any victims found at the scene. Likewise, a police incident commander will know that triaged victims will need to be moved to different treatment areas, and fire/EMS teams can be assembled to move the victims on litters.

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It’s About the Service, Not the Department

Citizens can recognize the difference between police officers and fire/EMS personnel, but could care less who helps them provided they receive the aid they need. First responders can’t all be cross-trained due to the need for firearms or medical training, but many of the tasks performed at large-scale incidents involve more logistics and general labor, rather than technical skills.

Having personnel who are able to switch sides and help other departments with their work during a mass casualty incident or other event only brings better service to the community. Take the time to meet your fellow public safety counterparts and collaborate with them in order to learn how they handle events and how you can help them.