Law enforcement must train for disaster response, or the bills may not be paid!
There are two questions you must ask of yourself and your agency. One, is your agency aware of a new mandate for emergency management that requires a standardized management system be used for state and federal expense reimbursement? Second, and more importantly, are you ready for the next disaster? If the answer is no to either question, it’s time for your agency to make rapid progress in both areas.
As a result of the October 1991 Oakland Hill wildfire, California State Senator Nick Petris authored Senate Bill 1841. The intent of the law is to improve coordination of state and local emergency response in California. It was passed by the legislature, and made effective January 1, 1993.
The statute directed the California State Office of Emergency Services to establish the Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS). The basic framework requires a systematic management in responding to multi-agency incidents. This will mean the use of the Incident Command System (ICS), Multi-Agency or inter-agency Coordination (MACS), the state mutual aid agreement and mutual aid systems operational area concept, and the Operational Area Satellite Information System (OASIS).
The Incident Command System is a widely accepted structure for an emergency management organization. It provides unified command and a structure for the operations, planning, intelligence, personnel, equipment, and finance functions necessary to the management of critical incidents. The organization flexes as the incident changes in magnitude, creating an effective framework for accomplishing goals and objectives.
Multi-agency coordination is most effective when a systematic approach is utilized. The multi-agency coordination system (MACS) consists of a coordination group of jurisdictional/agency representatives, facilities, equipment, procedures, information systems, and internal and external communications systems integrated into a common system that ensures effective coordination.
When civil disorders or “unusual occurrences” beyond the resources of the local agency take place, the mutual aid system will respond with additional personnel and resources. Depending on the magnitude of the incident, surrounding jurisdictions with Memoranda of Understanding in place may respond. If additional resources are necessary beyond the local level, the operational or county level is the next stage of response. If the situation requires additional assistance of more than one operational area, the regional coordinator will request resources within a larger area or region. Finally, if the incident is so large that the regional resources are not sufficient, the state coordinator will coordinate resources from the state agencies.
OASIS is a satellite-based communications system with high frequency radio backup. It provides a rapid transfer of information between user agencies. In SEMS, OASIS can be viewed as both a communications network and information dissemination system linking local, operational, and state organizational levels.
This system must be used in incidents that involve multiple jurisdictions or multiple agencies. If it is not used, beginning December 1996, agencies will not be eligible for state funding of response related personnel costs. Further, if not eligible for state aid, it is unlikely that federal aid will be available.
If you think about it, incidents that require another agency to respond are common. For example, a fire at a plating company in Oakland occurred in 1993, and due to the highly hazardous nature of chemicals stored inside, a large area around the fire was secured. This required coordination with the California Highway Patrol and Cal-Trans to close a portion of Interstate 880. It also required the response of other fire departments, state, and federal agencies. Although just a fire, SEMS will be a required management system of this incident. If you think how often you call for another agency to assist or support, that's how often SEMS will apply.
Research of law enforcement in California shows that very little training is currently conducted in multi-agency incident response. To plan for the future, and work through agency-specific coordination problems, now is the time to start this management function.
Since the legislation was passed in 1993, work has been ongoing to help agencies in the training process. The Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) has been working on this project for over a year and a half, led by Senior Consultant Mickey Bennett. A POST telecourse is planned for early 1995 to assist agencies and its employees in understanding and using the system. Several modules of training are planned to address varying levels of need, from the first responder to the elected political leaders.
Some agencies that have heard about the mandate are contacting the Office of Emergency Services and POST to see what to do to satisfy the requirement. Courses of instruction are being planned to train officers, but this is only the first step. The use of the system needs to occur on an ongoing basis. It is difficult to only use the Incident Command System in disasters, when it has not been applied regularly. An incident may start small, like a fire, but when hazardous chemicals become involved, other agencies will be called to respond to the scene. The task of “backtracking,” and putting together an organizational chart takes away from the ongoing incident, and required decisions. This process must start at the onset of incidents that have any likelihood of involving other agencies.
Is SEMS enough?
Let’s imagine you have been trained on SEMS. Are you ready to make decisions and direct or perform functional tasks required in the next disaster?
The answer is probably not. SEMS is a management system that improves coordination and communication. It is not a system for emergency, critical incident, or disaster function training.
There are a limited number of courses on critical incident management. Courses are currently available through the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), California Specialized Training Institute (CSTI), Office of Emergency Services, a few local colleges, and private consultants. Attendance at these courses can be costly, and have size limitation that results in long waiting lists. Especially with the SEMS legislation, it is imperative that agencies look for alternative methods of training.
We can do it better
I was a patrol sergeant the day of the Oakland Hill fire. I responded to the area and directed evacuation, traffic control and acted as the initial liaison with the fire department. I tracked the fire on a street map, as the fire department was overwhelmed with their job, and not able to establish a liaison. We did our job as best as possible, but training would have made it better.
The functional tasks required in emergency response are similar in all types of incidents.
The actions of an incident commander in a fire are very similar to those in a barricaded suspect, or other incident.
Training for these basic functions provides an excellent foundation for any emergency management or responder function.
Now is the time to examine our competencies in critical incident management, both individually and departmentally. We are good at what we do, but we can do it better.
Peter Dunbar is Lieutenant of Police, Oakland Police Department, Oakland Calif.