How to get fire/EMS noticed in terrorism response

Despite their vital role, the fire and EMS services are being left out of the national conversation about terrorism response; that needs to change

By Robert Rielage

One of my earliest fire service mentors told me, "If the fire service is ever going to get the credit its due from the public, sometimes it's going to have to blow its own horn." Recent events have proven this advice to be both very wise and very accurate.

In the past weeks, there have been terrorist attacks of one form or another in several locations around the world. These included shootings or bombings in Ankara, Turkey; Bamako, Mali; Paris; Colorado Springs, Colorado, and San Bernardino, California.

The media carried live coverage of the attacks in Paris, Colorado Springs and San Bernardino, followed by several days of news conferences, updates and analysis. Yet there was very little mention or no coverage whatsoever on the role of the fire service during these incidents.

Even an untrained observer has only to look back at the video of the three simultaneous attacks in Paris to note that the once the perimeters were secured, the only vehicles entering or exiting these road blocks were fire engines and paramedic units of the Sapeurs Pompiers de Paris or as we would say, the Paris Fire Service.

Videographers positioned blocks away captured dozens of pompiers in their distinctive turn-out gear with silver or gold helmets entering the nightclub where hundreds were killed or injured to assess those most critical and return outside carrying victims to a caravan of waiting fire department medic units to be treated and transported to area hospitals.

One voice out of many
So it also was in the United States, where both the Colorado Springs and San Bernardino terrorist attacks were carried live by virtually every major news agency in the country and via satellite to every media outlet around the world.

I was working at my desk on Dec. 2 when the volume increased on the television about 30 feet down the hall. Shepherd Smith from Fox News repeatedly said what I thought were the words "fire service" in short order.

Coming down the hall, I asked what was going on, just as Smith indicated that while Fox News routinely would require at least two independent sources before reporting a story, they were going with information from the official San Bernardino Fire Department Twitter site that the department was responding to a report of a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in their city.

During the first hour, we changed the station for coverage from a variety of news agencies including Fox News, CNN and NBC. While helicopter coverage of the area showed the streets lined with San Bernardino and neighboring mutual aid fire engines and paramedic units, the only mention of the fire service we heard came from a feed from the local NBC affiliate.

A reporter, obviously knowledgeable of the fire service, gave approximately a 2-minute description of the mass casualty incident he saw unfolding before him as firefighters and paramedics triaged, treated and transported the living victims.

He described in detail that in addition to stand-alone paramedic units, San Bernardino fire engines and those engines from responding mutual-aid departments all had paramedics on board. He reported that the paramedics had quickly begun the triage process — placing color tags on the wounded victims before they arrived at the treatment area in the nearby street. He ended by saying that if there were any chance these wounded victims would survive, it would be from the quick actions of the on scene paramedics.

Overlooked, again
A subsequent tweet from the San Bernardino Fire Department indicated that all viable patients had been removed and treated within 15 minutes of their arrival — an incredible feat under difficult and dangerous conditions.

And then there was virtually a cone of silence with no mention of the fire service again.

The story continued well into the afternoon, evening and night. We saw video of SWAT members in green or black camouflage mount the outside of armored vehicles as they went to check out various locations.

Watching them travel down a highway from the helicopter's vantage point, I tried to pick out the tactical medics on board who undoubtedly, like in several departments where I had served, were trained members of the fire service.

Later as a robotic vehicle entered the attackers' home in nearby Redlands, California, I knew that somewhere close by firefighters and paramedics were staged in the event that something went critically wrong at the crime scene.

And in the early morning hours, I watched the press conference where the mayor of San Bernardino praised the joint law enforcement effort, but failed to mention or even have a representative present from his fire department.

Horn blowing
While we know the tremendous amount of training and the disciplined response that allowed the Paris, Colorado Springs and San Bernardino Fire Departments to perform during these terrorist attacks, why aren't we getting a message out to our citizens?

In the days that followed, every news agency began to parade out a field of experts — including former FBI agents, federal prosecutors, intelligence analysts, university criminologists, and a social psychiatrist or two.

Where were our experts from the fire service?

So how do we get the credit we deserve? The answer is to be prepared for the inevitable crisis event. At the local level, have a designated chief officer, PIO or spokesperson available for on scene interviews.

Use official press releases as well as social media to help get out the story to the public, and have that run by someone other than the designated on scene spokesperson. Have someone present at all press conferences in a uniform distinctive from those of the police to show that the fire service is part of the team response.

We also need more attention at the national level. This responsibility falls to our national fire service advocacy groups. Each has leading fire service experts who can be pressed into service to explain the role of fire and EMS to the national media.

It is not enough to sit by the phone after an incident and wait for the media to call. Our national leaders need to be in front of the media as these major events unfold. They can do this by using social media outlets, having prepared news releases and reaching out to their national media contacts to offer experts for interviews.

Is it any wonder our brothers and sisters in blue are getting the bulk of the local, state and federal dollars being spent on public safety? It's time to echo the advice of my mentor and for the fire service to begin to blow its own horn.

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