The entire country, and in particular the New York City public safety system, breathed a collective sigh of relief this week when an improvised explosive device (IED), placed inside an SUV and left to detonate in Times Square, failed to detonate. This morning a naturalized citizen from Pakistan was arrested as he attempted to board an airliner for Dubai. As we congratulate the alert citizens of New York, the New York Police Department, the Fire Department of New York, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and all the other assisting agencies for the tremendously effective and efficient work in this matter, we cannot ignore the gravity of this wake-up call. The implications of this individual’s actions are deep and should send a collective shiver up the spine of every fire, police, and medical worker in America today.
We define and measure critical incidents based on their size, scope and seriousness. The size of this event is nationwide, its scope touches the lives of each and every American, and its seriousness cannot be overestimated. Too many politicians and citizens would like to pretend that the war on terror and terrorism in general is something that is fought and exists only on foreign soil. For those of us in the fire service and other public safety agencies, nothing could be farther from the truth. We engaged in public safety recognize that we need to be on guard for domestic terrorists, international terrorists, environmental terrorists, and for those unstable persons who would create a terrorist environment solely for the purpose of killing and injuring innocent civilians.
I believe that Margaret Thatcher, when she was serving as the British Prime Minister, once said that the terrorists only have to be lucky once but we have to be lucky all the time. This most recent act of terrorism occurred in New York City, where, fortunately, courageous leaders constantly remind New Yorkers to be on the lookout for suspicious activity and persons. Slogans on buses and on railcars remind them to report anything they see that might be suspicious. That heightened awareness and that willingness to participate in aggressive preemptive social education paid off this week.
Many would say that it's not politically correct to ask people to be exceptionally alert to and exceptionally aware of their surroundings and of others’ suspicious activity. Those same people will be the first to say after a tragic event that we should have been more alert and more aware of suspicious activity. Those of us in law enforcement, fire, and EMS do not have the luxury of 20/20 hindsight. Rather, we must be constantly focused on potential threats and be ready to deal with the unimaginable.
This event also should remind us that the primary tool of the terrorists is still a mechanical device. Simply put, terrorists prefer bombs because they are simple to assemble and easy to deploy. Bombs also have devastating effects on civilian populations, and the use of an IED in a heavily trafficked area is a tactic terrorists have used for the past several decades. Bomb squads should review and update their protocols for IEDs and review the latest military methods being successfully deployed in the Middle East.
One needs to question what the intent of this terrorist activity was. First, we must assume that it was to kill and maim as many civilians as possible. Second, it may have been intentionally flawed so that those who set the device could record the activities in the deployments of the first responders and the civilians. Assuming the intent was to deploy the device successfully, responders need to review their trauma protocols and triage protocols for persons exposed to explosive devices and the device’s devastating effects.. Finally, we need to review our protocols for our deployment in terms of secondary devices, dirty devices, and the possibility that terrorists might be lingering in the area with the intent of causing further harm with other types of devices such as guns and chemical weapons.
American public safety did not pay a great deal of attention to the recent attack in Mumbai, India on November 26, 2009. This is very unfortunate. When one looks at that devastating attack in which a small group of terrorists--reportedly only 26--were extremely effective in bringing an entire nation to its knees and killing more than 160 people, it is a wake-up call through which we slept. These terrorists in India sought out American and British citizens. These terrorists mean to bring the battle to our doorstep, and we need to be ready. During our upcoming safety week, June 20-26, as part of our readiness campaign, we should review our weapons of mass destruction protocols, our interagency communications capabilities and procedures, and our tactical medical programs.
So what should we take away from our good fortune and stopping this IED in Times Square? First, the war on terror is not over; terrorists intend to continue to try to harm us, and we must be ever vigilant. Second, we must recognize that the well-informed and well-prepared citizen is our best defense and should do everything we can to increase awareness and education relative to the threats. Third, we must be prepared in our responses to be able to communicate efficiently and effectively among fire, police, EMS, homeland security, public utility, media, transportation, various levels of government, and federal law enforcement.
It is not enough to just have policy and procedure binders full of rules and regulations, bullet lists of things to do if the unthinkable is successful on American soil. We must develop the relationships needed to facilitate supportive decision-making and instant access to resources and decision-makers when the needs arise. Just having a plan is no plan at all. Communities must provide the opportunity for members of all agencies to come together and review the intricacies and potential failure points that can occur when trying to respond and manage a terrorist event.
The lessons we learned from the Times Square failure and our good fortune this time are the following:
• Citizen awareness must be increased across the nation.
• Good policies need to be developed, and good relationships need to be fostered.
• Remember that America still vulnerable to attack and because of our freedom and openness, always will be.
• Enhance the use of integrated communication and GIS systems.
• Remember that every American city has an iconic location that is a potential target.
• Review mass-casualty response, including decontamination and triage.
• Appropriately reinforce the hardening of high-profile targets.
• Never forget the lessons of 9/11 and the dear price in human treasure we paid to learn them.
I would be interested in knowing what your thoughts are on this. Please continue this blog to share on this topic for long as it takes. Let’s build a stronger America, a more prepared America, together.