The Four Pillars and Keys of Successful Interoperability


By Lt. Alvaro Toñanez, Exercise Planner/Training Officer, Hazardous Materials Bureau, Miami Dade Fire and Rescue, USA

Because new threats emerge from around the world, the ability to quickly respond to and control a non-conventional threat (NCT) situation is becoming more difficult due to the availability and sophistication of new products and technology. Understanding these new NCTs is key to training and preparing for managing them with the least amount of harm. Hence, it is imperative that agencies train and prepare together for joint agency responses in order to be successful in these new, complex NCT scenarios. There are several fundamental keys to enabling successful joint operations, a few of which are presented and illustrated in this article.

Key 1: Joint training across agencies at local levels is necessary to prevent or defeat new NCTs.

The so-called “mainstay” operations for many local and municipal (city-wide) agencies have become more complex recently since the early 2000s and the ubiquity of “new tech.” Threats managed by one or two agencies in the past now require the intervention of several organizations to mitigate and control an NCT environment nowadays. Attacks on unprotected civilian populations – soft targets – continue to shove nails into the emotional heart of people while the NCTs vary depending on the means available – i.e. weapons.

For example, using automatic or semi-automatic firearms increasingly gained preference over other forms of attacks in the USA since the repeal of what is known as the Reagan Assault Rifle Ban. This makes it possible for one person to conduct a simple and effective attack, whereas this NCT would require at least three people to undertake. The attack at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta Georgia proves that careful planning and motivation by a single person – Eric Robert Rudolph – can wreak untold physical and psychological harm with limited resources. Once upon a time, a confirmed terrorist event with an explosive device was handled by a single EOD team; or, a toxic industrial chemical attack would require only the response of a single Hazmat team. New forms of terrorism can require that both public order and emergency services – even military support – from several agencies or locals respond together side by side to bring the attack under control and prevent the loss of life.

Key 2: Training across local authorities ensures many moving parts happen at precisely the right time to avoid a catastrophe.

Cross-Agency Coordination

The Ebola outbreak in Africa struck fear in the USA a few years ago when a “profiled patient” visited a hospital with Ebola-like symptoms. The ensuing panic scared mayors of cities across the nation into preparing for what many civic leaders and medical experts of the moment saw as a potential outbreak. Many Fire and Emergency Service Departments scrambled to confront this new threat with plans and training to contain a biohazard NCT. The changes that took place had to do with the response to a single “profiled” patient who exhibited flu-like symptoms.

Comprehensive NCT Training teaches us that asking a series of questions before the patient receives treatment by paramedics, who are trained to establish if a suspected infectious agent is present and if it is possible to transport the patient-victim. If specific conditions are evident, then the patient’s movement and treatment needs coordination with Emergency Medical Services, the receiving hospital, and the designated HazMat team to contain the NCT scenes. In addition, decontamination teams at the hospitals must receive notice prior to the patient’s arrival to allow for time in setting up the decontamination corridor.

Local Health Departments should receive notification to administer prophylaxis to those possibly exposed to a biohazard. Once the “infected” condition of a patient-victim is confirmed, then transportation to a recognized treatment center is necessary. This requires the support and coordination from several agencies to include emergency services, certified hazardous material handlers, local health departments, the Center for Disease Control and others to coordinate.

This sophisticated level of coordinated activity is enabled by training and cross-agency coordination – even simulation exercises – that should happen long before an NCT incident. Training of this nature is the key to success and survivability.

Critical Communications

Communication is as vital during cross-agency training as it is in actual field operations. For example, a raid on a house known to be processing and distributing illicit drugs, such as cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine. In previous years, the law enforcement agency responsible to serve and execute the search and arrest warrant at the location would simply convene their SWAT team, storm the house, apprehend criminal suspects, collect evidence and seize narcotics. Until recently no more than one or two law enforcement agencies could handle this situation. Nowadays – and in sharp contrast to the past – that same scenario is not as simple.

Advancement in chemical synthesis for the illicit drug trade is producing lethal substances that are so toxic that many are truly unsuitable for human use of any kind. The fairly new family of opioid drugs that include Fentanyl or much stronger Carfentanyl are being added to cocaine and heroin to increase their “feel-good” effect and increase the drug’s volume and profit margin. These chemicals are so potent that a small amount is deadly. Therefore, handling these substances requires a more robust response than in the previous years of drug lab raids.

SWAT members responding to these opioid drug “factories” must enter the premises wearing chemical protective suits and self-contained breathing apparatus to protect themselves as much as their ballistic armor – and require to undergo decontamination procedures once the raid is over. This added fact would possibly necessitate the integration of a HazMat Team to provide decontamination and removal of their protective suits, as well as a whole training and communication regiment for this task.

To underscore the importance of communication in cross-agency training and NCT neutralization, there was a similar scenario to the previous that took place recently during a drug raid in south Florida.

Key 3: Have proven means to communicate and immediately start sharing information among stakeholders and partners once recognizing and confirming an NCT.

The plan was quickly set in place and required that Hazmat team follow the SWAT team to an area a near where the raid was to happen. The HazMat team set-up the decontamination corridor while the SWAT team raided the location – a house, as in many cases in the USA. Unfortunately, all did not go as planned.

The HazMat team setup the corridor at the wrong location and the water source that was to supply the “decon” corridor from was dry. While the SWAT team executed the raid and arrests quickly, it had to wait at the decontamination line while another water source was located and accessed. Despite their training for coordinated raid activities, there was no lines of communication to convey the delay. The availability of radios and internal frequencies that could have prevented communication issues between both teams were not available. The failure to communicate – and train to communicate – put the mission, personnel and civilian lives in danger.

Key 4: Train how to best communicate before, during and after missions. Measure, critique and improve on these methods or doctrines, starting with predicting challenges before the mission begins, making changes as needed during the mission, and recommending solutions after it concludes for future training exercises.

Attaining the Four Pillars

“Interoperability” is the process by which two or more agencies interact with each other seamlessly through commonly coordinated procedures and resources that are set in advance to achieve goals. Being able to support each other to this end, agencies fulfil needs or weaknesses through resource sharing. This is the foundation of “interoperability.”

The “Four Pillars of Interoperability” are: Training, Communications, Planning, and Coordination.

  • Training and simulation exercises solidify a plan, test the procedures and reinforce coordination of efforts. Coordination can be tested by setting up table-top exercises (TTX) with a planning committee, whereby all those involved in the response can brainstorm and work through coordination procedures and develop the best plan or practices. TTX are best suited for those responsible for developing agency policies, standard operating procedures and training. Classroom training procedures and curriculum are then available to all those responsible for executing the best practices learned from the TTX. These training elements should cover each agency’s obligation and how it affects coordination of all other stakeholder / participant efforts. Finally, a field exercise takes place to ensure all “moving parts” fall into place and the concepts formulated by the planning committee are attainable and realistic.
  • Communication is vital for keeping all aspects of interoperability together. Open lines of communications and information sharing should be practiced throughout the entire process of planning, coordination and response.
  • Planning is vital when creating the concept of operation. It is where all stakeholders with an immediate part in the response come together to discuss what might affect their response and how their agencies can support efforts to overcome challenges. Planning members should have a complete understanding of their agency’s capabilities and operating procedures that might conflict or complement those of other participants.
  • Coordination covers how each stakeholder’s objectives will be met through the interaction and efforts of the supporting agencies. Coordination becomes critical when more than two agencies are responsible for one task.

Key 5: Resources might come in the form of equipment or personnel, as well as capabilities, communications, information, procedures and training. Shared knowledge of their availability, quantity and how to access and deliver them are mission critical.

Ensuring Success

The National Response Framework in the USA states that all major emergencies requiring federal assistance begin and end at the local level. In other words if a municipal police or fire department is unable to bring an emergency under control it would request aid from surrounding departments. If this assistance does not bring the emergency under control the state would provide for more resources. Once these state resources are depleted, federal assistance is then requested. Eventually, as these resources are utilized and the situation is brought back to normal it is once again passed onto the local agencies to finish the response. One can only imagine the amount of preparation that needs to go into planning for an event this size.

This level of emergency response interoperability involving local, state, regional and federal resources will test all agencies involved and their training exercises. Even a well-developed plan could fail if the agencies in charge of planning and training for a response are not familiar with each other’s capabilities, procedures and resources. Knowing each other’s strength and weaknesses and knowing how to overcome them through proper planning, coordination and training is the basis for interoperability. Achieving this will lead to success.

Good Luck and Stay Safe!

About the Author

Lieutenant Alvaro Toñanez is a career firefighter with 24 years of experience in the Miami Dade Fire Rescue Department. He has been a Hazardous Materials Technician since 2002 and holds a certification of HazMat Specialist for his department. Lieutenant Toñanez is currently assigned to the Hazardous Materials Bureau as the training officer where for the last ten years he has been coordinating training and exercises for his and other agencies that have response roles during a multiagency operation.

Lt. Toñanez will be one of the speakers at our NCT South America 2020 event in Bogotá, Colombia, on 4-5 February 2020!

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