Inauguration Day: Not your average year, not your average event
Pandemic, protests complicate fire, EMS event planning, underscoring the importance of contingency planning and practice
Large-event planning can be a dynamic responsibility for any fire and EMS department, but the 2021 Presidential Inauguration is a particularly unique event.
We’ve already seen the on-edge posture in Washington after one of the inauguration rehearsals was halted, and the Capitol evacuated, when a homeless encampment caught fire about a mile from the inauguration site.
And the Inauguration Day activities will undoubtedly see a massive first responder and military presence, particularly after the unparalleled attack on the Capitol just two weeks prior.
LEVELING-UP EVENT PLANNING
As we explore the dynamics of large-event planning, I speak from the perspective of having been at least peripherally involved with the public safety planning efforts for seven Presidential Inaugurations, and deeply involved with three countywide official inauguration events.
Planning for any large event should include a series of pre- and post-event meetings to plan needs and evaluate outcomes. For an event like the Presidential Inauguration, exercises should be conducted and contingency plans created. It’s not good enough to simply have contingency plans, you must practice them. After all, operational and contingency plans not exercised are merely pieces of paper. Exercising contingency plans may take extra time, but it has the potential to uncover key weaknesses that must be addressed before event day.
Planning for a “normal” inauguration – one without the recent memories of the Capitol attack – is challenging enough, with the plethora of meetings and the logistics of various agencies working together for a common cause. And planning for any large event is challenging enough during a “good” year – and the past 12 months would certainly not constitute a good year.
The COVID-19 virus has put the breaks on most large-scale events. Thus, fire/EMS large-event planning teams would normally embrace this complication under the assumption that most attendees would stay home, avoiding the patriotic or protesting pilgrimage to Washington.
Alas, as odd as it sounds to say, if COVID-19 was the only dynamic at play here, we could all go home and sleep at night. However, adding the lagging acceptance for a peaceful transition of power, plus the actions we witnessed on Jan. 6 at the Capitol, significantly complicates planning efforts. Then you add the swirling vortex of conspiracy theories and political rhetoric and we have a highly complex event to plan – far more complex than most fire departments will ever face.
Leading up to the actual inauguration, there is, of course, a list of required procedural to-do’s, including the certification of votes by Congress. It is reasonable for one to surmise that under the extraordinary political drama we have witnessed since the November election, additional planning and exercising would have been conducted for even the lead-up activities. Maybe it did. However, as we witnessed, there appeared to be a significant disconnect between the level of preparedness, the level of intelligence, and reality.
To illustrate the scale of failure in public safety planning and action during the Capitol siege, a recent Police1 news article paints the picture of an apparent breakdown in leadership from the planning and operations perspective.
As we believe now, the crowds for patriotic pilgrimage will be significantly muted due to the COVID pandemic, while the crowds of protest pilgrimage may be larger than either expected or previously experienced. From a planning perspective, most large-scale event exercises should always take worst-case scenarios into account, even though few, if any, ever play out. How we perform will, in large scale, depend on how well we exercise, how well we cooperate and, yes, who’s sitting in the command role if something happens.
HOW DO YOU PREPARE AND RESPOND?
Planning for large-scale event response should extend well beyond Washington to every backyard fire department across the United States. You are the ones your community expects to be prepared to respond when the proverbial stuff hits the fan.
You should be working hand-in-hand with your local law enforcement entities on planning for such events. Remember that pesky National Incident Management System (NIMS) doctrine that arose out of 9/11? You should develop an ICS structure that makes sense for the size and scope of the events you face. Ensure that your department is part of the solution, not part of the problem.
There is a dynamic difference between tactical/mass-casualty response and everyday incident response. The unrest and the events we have been witnessing have required much more tactical response than our everyday incidents. It is important to recognize that our ability to directly and positively impact these events is EXTREMELY limited, but we must be prepared to respond.
Make sure you’re prepared and that you’ve exercised both your plan and your contingency plan. No matter your political ilk, Grandma Jones expects that you’re coming to help her in her darkest moments – let’s not disappoint!