Recent activities in Iraq and throughout the Middle East have provided safe havens for terrorists who are intent on attacking the homeland and the United States must be prepared for such attacks, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee said in a hearing Wednesday morning.
“Just as we must continue to combat these threats overseas, we must also remain vigilant at home and be prepared to respond to attacks that reach our shores,” Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) said in his opening statement before the committee’s hearing on “The Critical Role of First Responders: Sharing Lessons Learned from Past Attacks.”
Part of the preparation for those attacks is readying first responders for crisis scenarios. Wednesday’s hearing was designed to examine first responders’ efforts before, during, and after terrorist events, as well as lessons learned that can be applied for future training. “The 9-11 terrorist attacks forever changed the role of our emergency response providers,” McCaul explained. “Since that day, these brave men and women have been the first on the scene during the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, among others. These tragic events remind us of the critical role first responders’ play in the nation’s ability to react quickly, whether it be to a terrorist attack or natural disaster.”
In his testimony, Deputy Commissioner John Miller of the Intelligence and Counterterrorism department of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) outlined some of the lessons learned since 9-11 that have come into play in New York City, such as handling an incident involving U.S. citizens.
In 2009, Najibullah Zazi and three other men plotted to place backpacks filled with explosives on New York Subway trains. Prior to the plot, Zazi had traveled with friends to Afghanistan to fight U.S. forces, but al Qaeda recruited them to return to New York and attack the homeland because they were Americans with U.S. Passports, which would allow them to return easily to the United States.
The NYPD was able to disrupt the plot and from that instance, learned that “if al Qaeda can find U.S. persons who are willing to fight and die in the fields of Afghanistan, they have a greater advantage in turning them back to launch attacks on the country they once called home,” Miller explained.
Additionally, the NYPD has also learned lessons from the power of al Qaeda’s use of social media and online messaging. By using these technologies, terrorist leaders never have to meet in person, making them harder to find and detect. Social media also allows their message to easily spread and for online publications, like Inspire Magazine, to reach Americans who might be vulnerable to their message and articles, like “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom,” which is believed to have inspired the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.
James Hooley, chief of the Department of Boston Emergency Medical Services, also testified at the hearing and explained what went right in the response to the Boston Marathon bombing. “The medical response to the attack was a success, serving as a testament to the level of preparedness, planning, and training our city and state have achieved,” Hooley explained. “Everyone who left the scene alive is still alive today, a remarkable outcome given the severity and number injured.”
Aiding in the response effort were multiple factors, including the fact that the bombs exploded near ready medical assets, the availability of personnel to “commence rapid and appropriate triage,” optimal running conditions, and that the bombings occurred immediately before a hospital shift change, resulting in added staffing in the midst of the patient surge, Hooley said.
Additionally, Boston had conducted years of behind the scenes planning through grants, drills, and exercises, that allowed it to plan a response tactic for a crisis situation, like the bombing, and carry out an effective response plan.
Despite the success of the response, Boston has learned lessons from the incident and acknowledged that Boston was exceptionally prepared for something to happen on the day of the marathon. “Having experienced and trained professionals on scene, able to provide immediate treatment and transport saved lives, but this EMS surge capacity was in many respects artificial; it is not part of daily operations,” Hooley said in describing the increased presence of medical personnel to support the normal marathon operation.
Hooley also said that Boston has identified a weakness when it comes to the ability of ambulances to respond to mass calls. “As we push healthcare functions to become less costly and more efficient, reducing periods of ambulances not being assigned to calls to as close to zero as possible, we expose ourselves to a point of self-organized criticality where we can’t respond to the ‘what if’ scenarios,” he explained.
Hooley also addressed the need for greater information sharing within the healthcare community, especially in Boston which has more than 60 health and medical departments, to better coordinate emergency medical response. Boston has developed a regional Medical Intelligence Center to help coordinate between healthcare facilities during an emergency situation and is focusing on improving this coordination.
Arlington County Fire Department Chief James Schwartz also addressed the need for better communication in his testimony. Schwartz is part of the department which responded to the plane crash at the Pentagon on 9-11.
“One of the keys to any successful response is the ability for various units to communicate and operate together,” Schwartz said. “The adoption of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) requires a culture change, and we still need to bridge organizational and professional biases.” Part of this address could include reviewing NIMS training and ensuring that federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial partners are all adopting the system and using it.
Schwartz also said that first responders need to make sure that lessons learned from incidents are shared with others to improve the homeland security enterprise and that communication is improved about the potential for terrorist activity and during an incident. “During the Pentagon response, the incident scene had to be evacuated three times due to the perceived threat of another incoming plane,” he said. “At least two of these incidents were caused by federal officials arriving in Washington to help with the federal response to these attacks. The federal government needs to make sure that accurate information is being relayed to the first responders on scene so that they can make the appropriate decisions.”
Ranking Committee Member Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS) also addressed the issue of information sharing during the hearing and said that efforts between federal, state, and local authorities need to be strengthened. “Since September 11th, information sharing silos that the 9/11 Commissioners recommended be addressed continue to be exposed after tragic events,” he said. “We need to work together to develop ways to fix this problem post haste.”