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Beyond borders: Emergency response services and MCIs

What the U.S. can learn from other countries about emergency response to terrorist events

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U.S. government agencies and communities are struggling with handling terrorist-style events that result in multiple casualties.


By Dr. Randall Hanifen, faculty member, Emergency & Disaster Management at American Military University

Recently, I spent three days at a board meeting of the U.S. branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers. This group works with fire professionals of all business sectors to foster best practices and education related to hostile fire and safety.

The fire service in the United States has undertaken many responsibilities that extend beyond just traditional firefighting duties. These responsibilities include hazardous materials response, technical rescue and first response to terrorist events and mass casualty incidents (MCIs).

We have undertaken this expansion mostly through federal government and consensus standard guidance. But how much of this guidance includes collecting information from international sources to help us develop useful policies, strategies and tactics?

Coping with a rising number of MCIs

In many countries, terrorist events occur on a daily basis and MCIs occur frequently. Israel has numerous MCIs. In fact, many research documents related to triage contain Israeli information.

While we will never become accustomed to school shootings, what security measures are taken by teachers and staff in foreign countries? Do their paramedics and firefighters carry firearms and enter with the police? We should learn what other first responders are doing.

U.S. government agencies and communities are struggling with handling terrorist-style events that result in multiple casualties. We are still determining the best methodologies to plan for and respond to the newest types of terrorist-style events.

Nationalization of emergency response services

First responders do not favor nationalizing emergency services. Our organizations all want their own identity and believe there are many reasons why they are unable to practice like neighboring organizations.

But if we put away our differences, we find that all of us respond to a plan for emergencies in much the same way. Organizations without effective responses use consultants to determine a better path forward for the organization.

We have national consensus standards on emergency response. But the minute an organization does not philosophically agree with a standard, it claims it has no need to comply. Some of these standards are adopted through a state’s OSHA organization or state-wide risk management organization. They are commonly adopted as administrative code and are enforced.

If we were to have national-level operating procedures and training standards that go with the nationalization of emergency services, we might obtain a baseline for what works in relation to our operations. If you examine school shootings, for example, each organization that responded likely had a different command structure, different communication and collaboration plans, and different entry tactics. But first response procedures are becoming more streamlined, especially as we have seen the creation of NFPA 3000.

Taking advantage of MCI emergency response research

The United States Fire Administration (USFA) should be commended for the new focus on research and the use of fire grant dollars to fund research. However, this has only occurred in earnest in the last decade.

In contrast, countries such as the United Kingdom have enacted grant monies for years. For instance, the U.K. has a long-standing grant program to research fire extinction.

Because of the time the U.K. has spent in researching and collecting information, their data’s validity has increased. Due to the nationalized or nearly nationalized model in certain countries, data entry and interpretation are more accurate.

USFA has updated the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) and started training sessions with regard to the meaning of the coding that is used to enter data into the NFIRS. However, there is a variance in the interpretation of data in NFIRS because 30,000 different fire departments are inputting information from over a million firefighters.

The future of emergency response to MCIs

While fire departments may not have an interest in the nationalization of fire services or being forced into common operating practices, we should look to other countries to see what they have done regarding the newest incident types. By doing so, we will be able at least to see what may not have worked and have a better starting place for our policies, plans and procedures.

As the internet has globalized business, the fire service should take advantage of this globalization. We should start looking beyond our national borders to observe and learn from first responder services in other countries.

About the author
Dr. Randall W. Hanifen is a shift captain for the West Chester Fire Department in Ohio and a fire service consultant. He is also a faculty member at American Military University, teaching courses in its Emergency & Disaster Management program. He has a B.S. in Fire Administration, a M.S. in Fire Service Executive Leadership, and a Ph.D. in Executive Management of Homeland Security. He is the associate author of Disaster Planning and Control. Randall serves as the executive chairperson of a County Technical Rescue Team, a taskforce leader for FEMA’s Ohio Task Force 1 US&R team, and is the vice-chair of IAFC Company Officers Section. He serves as a member of NFPA 1021 Fire Officer and NFPA 1026 Incident Management committees He is credentialed as a fire officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and has been accepted as a fellow to the Institute of Fire Engineers. Randall has provided presentations and trainings for the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association, Fire Rescue International, Emergency Management Institute, and the IAFC Board of Directors. To contact the author, send an email to For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

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