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Government Shutdowns and Increased Public Safety Vulnerabilities

Without getting political, the current government shutdown is the longest in our country’s history. Despite this fact, how do government shutdowns increase our public safety vulnerabilities?

My heart goes out to individuals and families directly and indirectly affected by the shutdown. The added stress and anxiety this matter brings to hundreds of thousands of government employees and those that rely on government services is mind blowing. Imagine wondering how to meet your financial responsibilities when no income is coming in. The fear of dipping into savings accounts, if you’re fortunate to have them. Wondering where your next meal is coming from, how to feed and provide shelter for your family. These are just some of the thoughts likely going through the minds of those directly affected, not to mention those indirectly affected by the shutdown, who rely on government employees and services to meet their essential needs and to keep our country safe.

Shutdowns stop government services many of us take for granted, but services that are often essential. Although, some services are being maintained through government employees who are currently working for free. Imagine being overly stressed and working for free. I expect this can lead to disgruntled employees, lowered morale, lowered performance, complacency, and other negative effects. Fortunately, many across America are stepping up to help those caught between a rock and a hard place to help make ends meet or simply to provide meals, so those wondering where their next meal is coming from won’t have to worry.

Take for instance air traffic controllers. They have a high stress job of keeping America’s skies safe by coordinating thousands and thousands of planes in the sky so they don’t crash. We rely on Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees to protect our airports, flights, and passengers through security screenings and to hopefully be an early defense mechanism to stop criminal activity that may threaten the lives of others. A shutdown only adds to these high stress government professions. Is that safe for us? Many of these folks are thinking about their families and their responsibility to provide. With so much on their mind, can they be expected to focus 100% on their job responsibilities?

The above are just two examples of how an emotional toll on government employees can influence America’s safety. I’m sure all of the affected employees are professional and are doing their best to function at 100%, but I also get it may be impossible for them to do this. So what about the criminal mind who wants to take advantage of our current vulnerabilities?

I think back to the terrorism seminars I participated in and the terrorism trainings I provided over the years. One thing I would tell my students is in order to understand a terrorist, you must think like one. When I think about reduced or unavailable government services, and the chaos it brings to our country, I think about the terrorist mind that wants to take advantage. I think about reduced airport security that lets something or someone get through. I think about people poisoning our food and water supplies, attacking the unexpected and vulnerable during social gatherings, while in transportation hubs, in schools, etc. I think about the domestic and homegrown terrorist that sees an opportunity and wants to act on it. I also can’t help but think about good people who are under unimaginable stress and look to taking matters into their own hands, which sometimes results in disgruntled behavior and a hopelessness that causes them to take extreme measures, like suicide, suicide by police, or perhaps they want to take others out as they prepare to check out of life.

For many, this way of thinking may be unimaginable, but for those in public safety, who have experienced a variety of human suffering and human behavior, the possibilities exists. Remember, “Predictable is preventable”, Gordon Graham.

As public safety first responders, have you given any thought (predictions) to what a long term government shutdown can bring to your response area? Are you training your folks to have more patience and compassion for their customers, who may be affected by the shutdown? When was the last time you discussed and trained on weapons of mass destruction, or setting up gross decontamination corridors to deal with a massive chemical exposure? What about dealing with a biological emergency, now that food inspections have temporarily stopped? Have you discussed or practiced an active shooter incident at a school, movie theater, or social gathering event? Are you trained and supplied to provide Tactical Emergency Casualty Care?  Do you know how to handle a mass casualty event? What is your response to a transportation incident involving planes, trains, or automobiles, where a mass casualty event may occur? What resources do you have to initiate mitigation efforts at a large scale event? Do you have sufficient resources? Do you have automatic mutual aid? What can your neighboring departments and agencies offer you in a crisis response and vice versa? What about the disgruntled employee that wants to check out in a public way, taking others with them?   How do you approach each door you respond too? Are you ready for the unexpected or do you take each call for granted and make yourself vulnerable to becoming a victim?

As first responders, many of us are never surprised by what we see, predictable is preventable. We are often the last hope and the saving grace for many who call upon us to handle their crisis, but sometimes first responders are the targets. When humans are stressed beyond their capability they can do some crazy stuff. These are trying times for many people. While some are doing their best to hold it together and to maintain their roles and responsibilities, others may be ready to lose it. The criminal mind may also be in the background watching our nation in a chaotic state to take advantage of our vulnerabilities. Predict the potential and prepare for a variety of situations. “Every day is a training day”, Gordon Graham.

For those in public safety and the military, thank you for your service. For those government employees who are essential and are on the job working without pay, thank you for your service. For those government employees who are currently not working and not getting paid, you are not alone and many of us are praying for you and trying to find ways to support you in your time of need. Thank you for your service and may you be back to work soon. For all of us, these are trying times for many. Be nicer, have patience and compassion for others, think happy thoughts. Know your positive words can be healing to others. Do what you can to help those who may need a helping hand.

First responders, predict the vulnerabilities a government shutdown can bring and find ways to prepare and practice for them so you can prevent and/or mitigate them effectively.


NICK J. SALAMEH is a 36 year veteran of the fire service. He was a Fire/Emergency Medical Services Captain II and previous Training Program Manager for the Arlington County (VA) Fire Department, with which he served 31 years. He is a former Chair of the Northern Virginia Fire Departments Training Committee and was a former volunteer firefighter for the Fairfax County, VA Fire and Rescue Department, Bailey’s Crossroads Fire Station 10. Nick is a contributor to Fire Engineering Magazine and Stop Believing Start Knowing (SBSK),

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