Multi-Agency Critical Incidents
One day, our agency had two armed robberies of individuals, committed by the same suspects, that occurred within minutes of each other. Almost immediately, it turned into a chase that went down the turnpike to a major highway, and then into two other jurisdictions, both of which joined in the chase, along with state troopers and a helicopter unit.
Now, the day before this incident, we had gone live with a new multi-agency radio system that included both of the other agencies involved in the chase. Before going live with the new radio, we had worked out a “policy” outlining how we would handle the radio traffic when all the agencies, who had access to each other’s radio talk groups, were involved in an incident together. The problem was, having not been involved in such an incident, we didn’t know everything that could, and would, happen.
In our situation, the suspects wrecked out on the highway, then took off in different directions on foot. Because of all the agencies involved, it was determined that the talk groups needed to be patched together. So, even though we had a common talk group we could all communicate on, someone patched all the main dispatch channels together. We learned very quickly that was not going to work. Besides the fact that that all the agencies were now on one talk group, each agency involved had a unit 101 working that day, including the helicopter unit. So, every time someone called 101 on the radio, all of them answered. At one point we even had 101 calling 101 and every 101 answered! We heard “101, go ahead”, “101, you got traffic?”, “Unit calling 101”, “101 dispatch, did you call?” It was a complete disaster! Somehow, though, through all of that confusion, the suspects were caught.
This is just one example of the things that can happen when you have a multi-agency response.
What is a Critical Incident?
A critical incident can be defined as any event that has a stressful impact sufficient enough to overwhelm the usually effective coping skills of an individual. Critical incidents are powerful events that fall outside the range of ordinary human experiences. They can be planned in advance or they can be incidents that happen suddenly, with no warning, and typically involve multiple agencies, organizations and resources.
So, what are some examples of sudden critical incidents?
Natural Critical Incidents
They can be natural events, for example hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and snow storms.
Man-Made Critical Incidents
They can be man-made incidents, such as hazmat incidents, acts of terrorism, and police chases.
One such hazmat incident happened years ago when an 18-wheeler carrying liquid chicken fat, wrecked on a major highway in the northeast, spilling the chicken fat all over the road. The highway was closed for several days while the state tried to clean it up with chemicals. But every time the sun came out and the road warmed up, the fat that had gone into the cracks in the road melted and came back up, making the road slick again. It wasn’t until Proctor Gamble sent a truck of Dawn to the scene that they were able to finally get it cleaned up permanently. Afterwards, a spokesman for Proctor Gamble was asked if they were going to use the incident in any advertising, saying they could advertise, “Get the fat out by the crack of Dawn!”
Other critical incidents might include missing child(ren), holiday parades, or sworn funerals.
What agencies might respond to these different incidents? Well, of course there will be the sworn personnel, like police, fire, and search and rescue. There will also be the service agencies, such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and FEMA. Included will be the other organizations and departments, such as CERT, the Humane Society, public works, the electric company, and the water department. And last but not least, will be the volunteers, both civilian and sworn.
Not only do these incidents create challenges for everyone on the scene, but the responses will also create challenges for PSAPs. So, let’s review some of those.
First are the many challenges to communicating effectively during a critical incident. Radio interoperability has historically been the biggest challenge due to lack of appropriate and efficient means to be able to timely transmit important information. In some communities, radio communication systems are incompatible within the various agencies or even departments in the same community. For example, the police department can’t talk to public works, the fire department can’t talk to animal control, or the highway patrol can’t talk to local law enforcement. So, Project 25 was initiated by public safety agencies and manufacturers to address the issue.
Now, as radio systems have been upgraded in order to facilitate interoperability, multiple agencies are able to communicate with each other and with the various Communication Centers involved. But, with agencies using different 10-codes and signals to “add a layer of privacy”, this results in miscommunication and confusion when multiple agencies and disciplines respond to an incident. Think code 58, 10-97, and Signal 16. These codes and signals might have added that layer of privacy in the past, but it didn’t take long for the listening public, especially the criminals, to figure out what each one meant. So, the confusion surrounding the codes during a multi-agency response resulted in a push to implement plain language, even having the verbiage added to The National Incident Management System (NIMS) guidelines. Since 9/11, the most notable incident involving interoperability issues, most agencies have reverted from codes and signals to plain language. And, with radio systems being encrypted now, there really is no need to try to be covert and secretive.
Another radio issue to consider is the “perfect storm”. A lot of, if not most, agencies are moving to P25 radio systems, that have redundancy built into the redundancy. One of the promises of these new systems is that they will never go down. That is simply not true.
No system can be relied upon to remain 100 percent functioning, no matter how many promises are made or how many levels of redundancy are built in. So, what does an agency do when the radio goes down completely? Is there a back-up VHF/UHF radios, and do the employees know where they are? Are they built into the consoles now or are they separate radios sitting in chargers? And most importantly, how often does the agency practice using them?
One “perfect storm” in the past, didn’t involve the radios going down, but it brought out another resource that’s not thought about in all areas of the country. Three things happened at the same time that knocked out the electricity in the entire county…at 10:00 at night…on Christmas Eve…in 14-degree weather. The unexpected resource came from the amateur radio club. Because of where the communications center was located, there was a HAM radio in Communications, and a couple of members of the club who had been background checked, so they were able to sit in Communications and help with the traffic on that radio. Also, during the power outage, other club members drove around all night, finding locations that had generators and electricity, so the public could be directed where they needed to be. This was especially important because 9-1-1 was too busy giving directions to citizens on how to cook their turkeys without electricity, and how to keep their food from spoiling while their refrigerators weren’t working!
If an agency has not thought about partnering with the local HAM radio groups, it might be time to consider bringing them to the table next time the emergency operations plan is updated. They can be a huge resource to any agency.
With both incidents mentioned above, several valuable lessons were learned, although not all of the lessons there are to learn.
Another consideration with multi-agency responses is ICS, or Incident Command System. Fire agencies use the incident command system automatically when responding to calls, whether it’s a fire alarm or an industrial structure fire. And they do this to maintain their skills in incident command, because if it’s not practiced on the small calls, then it won’t work on the big calls. However, very few law-enforcement agencies practice incident command on a daily basis, which can be problematic when a critical incident occurs.
Part of the goal of incident command is to have those who are giving the directions in one place, so that everyone in charge knows what is going on. If those in charge are scattered between several different locations, on different radio talk groups, then they aren’t able to monitor what’s going on at other areas of the scene. In one past example, there was a Commander at the scene of a live ordnance that was found in a neighborhood. Another Commander was on the highway, shutting down traffic to the area, and the communications center was calling the schools to put them on lockout. Once the ordnance had been safely detonated, the Commander on the scene advised that traffic could be re-opened on the highway. The Commander who was handling the highway shutdown was on a different talk group and didn’t hear the transmission. He was eventually told by the state troopers that he could let traffic resume. During the next command staff meeting, those two commanders wanted to know why the information was never relayed to the second commander about the highway being opened again. They complained that he had to find out from another agency.
Now, all the commanders had attended the NIMS training, and were supposed to be familiar with the process. But because they didn’t practice it, they didn’t use it when they needed to, resulting in confusion and unnecessary complications. Not to mention, they expected the radio operators to relay information from one talk group to another, all while dispatching other calls on the main channel, answering 9-1-1 calls from parents with kids in the nearby schools, wanting to know what was going on, and performing EMD on another 9-1-1 call. Needless to say, that is NOT how ICS works.
If ICS isn’t practiced every day, regardless of whether the agency is law-enforcement or fire, now would be a good time to start, before that critical incident or disaster strikes.
Another challenge to be considered are the donations that come in during a critical incident. And it’s not just a challenge for the responders, this includes Communications. Often, citizens will gather items they no longer need, such as old, worn out clothes, shoes, even underclothes, as well as items they deem essential. Then they start calling the Communications center to ask where they can deliver the donations. Cities/counties/agencies end up with hundreds, even thousands, of items that are unusable and need to be discarded. This becomes another task for those in charge of an incident to worry about, while at the same time trying to recover from the incident.
Although churches and other organizations will step up to help with the logistics of donations, it can take some time to determine who and where those receiving centers are going to be. In the meantime, the agency can be overwhelmed with the initial flood of donated items coming into the building. It’s best to anticipate that this will happen and have a process in place in advance of a critical incident. That way, agencies aren’t scrambling to find someone who can be dedicated to handling the intake of the donations until such time as a process can be established with the various churches and organizations.
One challenge that is often under estimated is the sheer number of volunteers who arrive to assist in search and rescue. Not only will there be sworn officers, firefighters, and public works personnel from other agencies responding, but citizens will rally to help each other and the responders in the best way they know how. If there are no plans for this, it can add more chaos to the situation, because someone has to handle the volunteers, both sworn and civilian. A plan needs to be in place, with specific personnel assigned to each group, for when the volunteers start calling or showing up immediately after the incident, wanting to know where to respond. There need to be separate designated areas for police, fire, public works, and civilian volunteers to report, along with maps and other resources available for those who aren’t familiar with the area. Basically, they need to have the tools they need to do their jobs. Having this plan in place will save everyone from additional headaches and will keep volunteers from going into places they shouldn’t be and possibly getting hurt.
Keep in mind that, depending on the type of incident, these volunteers and extra personnel may be on hand for weeks, or even months, after the incident. As the weeks go on, and sworn volunteers continue to report for duty, there needs to be a place for them to report that doesn’t interfere with the communications center. If every time they report to the agency, someone from communications has to let them into the locked areas of the building, this is putting an undue burden on the communications personnel. Make sure the sworn volunteers have either temporary card keys, or designated escorts, to get into areas they are expected to access.
In each critical incident that has been reported, one constant has been the looters. They are on the news, raiding stores and businesses, even as the waters are rising, or the rioting is going on behind them. Critical incidents are considered a perfect time by the looters due to responders being overwhelmed with search and recovery, performing life-saving measures, and restoration to law and order. The looting becomes another issue to which they have to respond. During one critical incident, a group of citizens got together and formed what they called the “Looter Booters”, in order to combat the looters. Their mission was to patrol all the damaged areas and to report any looters they came across. But then, the communications center also started receiving calls from them, reporting members of their group being attacked or harassed by the looters. One looter even started chasing members of the group. The agency had to appoint someone to be their point of contact to coordinate their patrol times and locations, and also to school them on things to do and things not to do. Having a person assigned to handle any “vigilantes” would be a good idea, just in case.
During a critical incident, when focusing on rescue and recovery, it’s easy to forget about the animals. One thing to keep in mind: DO NOT FORGET ABOUT THE ANIMALS. During a critical incident, whether natural or man-made, animals will be displaced, and not all of them will be pets; some will be wild animals, depending on the area. Some may be carried to other parts of the city by severe weather, such as a tornado or a hurricane, and others may take off running, scared away from their homes by a storm or loud noise. In these cases, calls will come in from citizens who have lost their pets, and calls from people who have found animals. Keep in mind, this doesn’t normally happen in the middle of the day when the animal shelter is open. Normally, this is going to happen in the late evening or middle of the night, when animal control is off duty, veterinarian offices are closed, and the agency has no recourse for dealing with the animals. This is something that should planned for in advance, by including animal control, veterinarians, and animal rescue and rehab groups in emergency operations plans. It should be detailed in the plan who will be called, by whom, and when they will be called. Having these contacts in place will take a huge burden off the center during a critical incident, as well as solving something that can end up being a big problem for the agency. Although it seems like such a small thing to worry about in the wake of a disaster, many people are much more worried about their pets than their families, so it would be a good idea to make sure there are provisions for this in advance.
Just because a critical incident has passed, it doesn’t mean it is over. Recovery can last for months, or even years, after the actual incident. In the case of a natural disaster, cities and/or counties may try to recover unbudgeted expenses, incurred during the disaster and recovery, from FEMA. In order to do this, certain procedures must be followed, and the appropriate paperwork must be filed. It is essential to have someone to coordinate that paperwork, checking to ensure it is all completed correctly and submitted according to FEMA guidelines. The paperwork to be submitted includes documentation of all hours worked in relation to the incident by all employees, including those from other agencies, and all expenses incurred for purchases towards clean-up, reconstruction, etc. This is an extremely important task because if the paperwork is not completed exactly as instructed by FEMA, the agency runs the risk of having any reimbursement denied. And the amount the city or county will pay for post incident clean up and reconstruction can run into the millions. And that money may come from funds budgeted for raises or other employee benefits.
Debriefings will be done with all agencies involved and most, if not all, will want copies of radio traffic during the incident; especially if the incident involved a shooting, a line of duty death, an act of terrorism, or some other manmade disaster. Copies of radio traffic and 9-1-1 calls need to be made as soon as possible in order to keep from losing any recordings, due to retention periods. Before this happens, it is imperative that the agency has a recording system that can handle the number of recordings a critical incident will generate. The incidents mentioned previously have occurred during the last 31 years and involved three different agencies. In each of those incidents, the agency involved had the HigherGround recording system. Because of this, the agencies never lost a recording. Employee assistance programs should be utilized, especially if the incident involved the death or injury of a responder or Communications Officer. Often, the stress of an incident will adversely affect employees even if no injuries were reported. In the event of a disaster such as a flood, hurricane, tornado, or mud slide for instance, the continued stress for days or weeks at a time will wear on employees to the point they are no longer effective in their position. It is imperative that the employer provides assistance to them in the aftermath. Some employees won’t even know they need help until it’s provided to them.
After any type of critical incident, a quality assurance checks should be done. Many employees will get so overwhelmed with the incident, they will throw caution to the wind and resort to saying what they actually want to say, which never ends well! A certain amount of customer service skills can and will go out the window, but a critical incident does not give license to disregard all customer service training. Take the time to QA some calls to review with the team later. Remember, QA doesn’t always have to be bad; outstanding examples of service in the midst of a disaster can be found, and those employees should be recognized.
These solutions should be in place to make those multi-agency critical incidents go as smoothly as possible.
- Have a radio plan in place. Know in advance what units will be on which talk groups
- If talk groups must be patched, determine who will do the patching
- Use agency names with unit numbers
- If there is a back-up plan in place, practice using it so when it’s needed, it can be used
- Consider partnering with your local amateur radio groups
Practice ICS on small calls so it works on the big calls.
Be prepared to have someone available to handle the multitude of donations that start coming in immediately after the incident.
Plan for having vigilante citizens getting in the way and causing more mischief. Have a plan in place for dealing with them.
Don’t forget about the animals. Make arrangements with veterinarians, the animal shelter, and various rescue and rehab groups to respond as soon as possible after the incident to take care of the lost and found animals, both domestic and wild.
Consider having one person designated to coordinate the FEMA paperwork to ensure it’s done correctly for reimbursement. Remember, small mistakes in the paperwork can cause rejection of any reimbursement claim.
Get copies of radio traffic and calls as soon as possible before their retention period expires.
Utilize the agency’s Employee Assistance Program. Don’t assume everyone is fine after going through such a stressful time.
Do quality assurance checks on calls and radio traffic. Recognize those who did outstanding work and…
Recognize everyone who helped during that time.