The Suburbanite
  • Part 1: First responders prepare for disasters

  • In the immediate aftermath of April's Boston Marathon bombings, the reactions ranged from shock to anger and fear to uncertainty. Residents of communities across the United States wondered how such an attack could have happened and more directly, whether there was any chance such an incident could occur where they live...
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  • In the immediate aftermath of April's Boston Marathon bombings, the reactions ranged from shock to anger and fear to uncertainty.
    Residents of communities across the United States wondered how such an attack could have happened and more directly, whether there was any chance such an incident could occur where they live.
    That second question may have just formed in the minds of most people living in the greater Akron area, but for the first responders and law enforcement officials in the area, that question is never far from the front of their minds. Area fire departments, law enforcement agencies and medical facilities regularly conduct drills and training exercises to prepare for an attack on a public event or other heavily-attended gathering. These meetings and training sessions are aimed at ensuring that everyone who would be called upon to help in the event of a large-scale emergency knows their role in the process and is ready to respond at a moment's notice.
    Many times, the first connection the public makes when a disaster or other emergency happens is their local fire department. For Green Interim Fire Chief Kevin Groen and his department, that often means calls from people who aren't sure how to respond to a situation.
    "A lot of times when people don't know who to call, they call the fire department," Groen explained. "Of course, we have to respond to any kind of emergency."
    The Green Fire Department has 45 uniformed firefighters/paramedics. All of the city's full-time firefighters are required to be certified paramedics as well. Response time to a call averages four minutes, although the spread-out nature of the city and traffic can cause that time to go up. The construction of a second fire station, located on Cottage Grove Rd., has helped in the quest to keep response time low.
    The department responds to a range of situations, with their primary focus being fires and those in need of emergency medical services from paramedics. However, calls also come in when a loose power line is down in the road, an animal has gotten loose and is cause havoc in a residental area or public road or a carbon monoxide leak or spill of hazardous materials has occurred, for example.
    "We're trained and prepared for a wide range of incidents," Groen added.
    The fire department also has monthly meetings with the Summit County Sheriff's Department, which provides law enforcement services for the city. The two groups discuss upcoming events, possible situations and ways to ensure that they communicate consistently so they are aware of what the other side is doing in the event of an emergency or large-scale incident. Another component of the relationship, Groen explained, is working closely with the sheriff's department on a daily basis so officers and fire department personnel are familiar with each other and how their counterparts operate.
    Page 2 of 3 - Both the sheriff's and fire departments have also been trained in the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which is a structured system for responding to incidents such as an attack at a public gathering.
    The core principle of NIMS, Groen explained, is to make sure that in the event of a large-scale emergency, all first responders are working from the same playbook and can then coordinate their efforts in the best possible way to ensure that the situation is handled correctly. When such an incident happens and chaos results in the immediate aftermath, having many different people talking, trying to control the situation and share what they need can exacerbate the chaos, Groen added.
    "It can work in a small community and it can work on a larger scale, such as what happened in Boston," Groen said.
    Along with the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and other smaller incidents since, the push to fine-tine NIMS has increased in the past decade. As part of their preparedness under the system, the Green Fire Department partners with other local fire departments, law enforcement and hospitals for a drill every three years to test their readiness for a large-scale emergency. The drill is staged at the Akron-Canton Airport and involves hospitals throughout the region. The drill involves scenarios such as a bomb, a plane crash or other security incident inside the airport.
    NIMS is in place not only when an emergency occurs, but for public events where the fire department is in attendance, such as Green's annual Memorial Day parade.
    "We use those NIMS principles prior to and during the event,"Groen continued. "We decide how we're going to communicate, how law enforcement is going to communicate with us, what radio frequency to use. We decide how we're going to communicate with the highway department and the parks people as well."
    Incidents such as Boston do focus the public attention more on national security issues, but the number of calls first responders receive on a daily basis and the volume of incidents they respond to means the issue is never far from their minds. Groen estimates that the fire department receives more than 3,300 calls a year for various types of incidents and while not all of those calls end up being serious emergencies, the department still must respond.
    He believes emergency personnel need to do a better job of letting the public know the amount of work they do on a daily basis when it comes to responding to incidents in the community.
    "We in this business are sometimes our own worst enemies because often times the public doesn't know how busy we are," Groen said. "Unless you live next to a police station, the sheriff's office or the fire department...you don't realize how often we're out there."
    Page 3 of 3 - Fire departments in smaller communities face similar challenges, but must do so with help from other departments. New Franklin Fire Chief Steve Leslie and his department know this reality well.
    “No fire department, no matter its size, can do it alone,” Leslie said. “New York City - FDNY - is the largest department probably in the world and they needed assistance on 9/11. So sooner or later, large or small, you are going to need assistance.”
    Response time in New Franklin averages 5-6 minutes. The city also has a water rescue and dive team that plays a vital role in emergency response when an incident occurs on the Portage Lakes. Leslie believes New Franklin and its surrounding department partners are exceptionally prepared for such an emergency in a "planning sense.”
    Reach Andy at 330-899-2872 or Andy.Harris@TheSuburbanite.com.
    On Twitter: @aharrisBURB

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