RAND-NIOSH Study Says New Approach Needed to Protect Emergency Responders in Terrorist Attacks and Disasters

June 16, 2004
NIOSH Update:

Contact: Fred Blosser (202) 401-3749

Recommendations to further the safety of emergency responders at the scene of terrorist attacks and other disasters are described in a new report issued June 16, 2004. The report, funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), was issued by the RAND Corporation and NIOSH.

Better planning, training, coordination and management procedures are needed to protect emergency responders at the scene of terrorist attacks and disasters, according to the study. It proposes a new approach that would make protecting the health and safety of emergency responders – including police, firefighters and ambulance crews – a key priority in coordinating the overall response to terrorist attacks and major disasters.

Currently, each agency that sends emergency responders to an incident takes responsibility for safeguarding its own workers. Because terrorist attacks and major disasters often draw emergency responders from several departments in nearby communities – with different operating procedures, communications systems and response plans – coordinating efforts to protect workers is difficult, the report says.

“At the scene of major disasters, responder safety is a collective responsibility for the multiple response agencies and organizations involved,” said NIOSH Director John Howard, M.D. “We look forward to working with our many partners to make this new report an important resource for planning and preparation.”

The study recommends enhanced preparedness planning to assure that all emergency responders to an event can be protected within the Incident Command System, the standard overarching management structure used in disaster response and called for under the newly established National Incident Management System. This would prevent different departments from wasting valuable time trying to come up with ways to protect workers on a case-by-case basis at each emergency scene.

The report, Protecting Emergency Responders, Volume 3: Safety Management in Disaster and Terrorism Response,” DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 2004-144, will be available shortly on the NIOSH web page and in paper copy from the NIOSH toll-free information number, 1-800-35-NIOSH (1-800-356-4674).

Other recommendations in the report call for:

  • Developing a cadre of highly trained disaster safety managers who can lead coordination between agencies. Drawn from local response organizations, these people would know their localities and be quickly available. They would also have the broad-based understanding of disaster situations and crosscutting expertise in safety management that is needed to supervise multi-agency safety efforts.
  • Incorporating safety and health issues more realistically into joint disaster exercises and training, to make sure that safety management is more than just a training footnote.
  • Preparing in advance the types of expertise and other assets needed to protect responder safety. This would help insure that safety-related reinforcements will be able to be used quickly and efficiently in an ongoing operation.
  • Developing common standards and guidelines for responder training, hazard assessment, responder credentialing and protective equipment to assure that responders have the knowledge and tools needed to accomplish their missions safely.

The importance of protecting emergency responders was underscored by the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. The difficulties of managing emergency responder safety in the New York City attack led to ad hoc arrangements to coordinate worker safety efforts. While the efforts provided important examples of coordinated approaches to safety management, the ad hoc arrangements took days to organize and their effectiveness suffered because they had not been included in preparedness planning, researchers found.

The report says leadership to make the needed changes should come from all levels of government. For example, an effective planning effort will require a combination of federal, state and local officials to develop national standards. And as in the National Incident Management System, cooperation between officials at all levels of government is needed to put many of the changes in effect.

Funding for the study was provided by NIOSH, which is part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The project included extensive involvement of emergency responders from organizations that responded to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, or to major natural disasters such as the Northridge earthquake and Hurricane Andrew.

The report is the third in a series of RAND-NIOSH studies on protecting emergency responders. The first report reported the findings of a special conference of emergency workers who responded to the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax incidents that occurred during autumn of 2001. The second documented the needs of emergency responders to improve their safety and protect their health. Those reports also are available on the NIOSH web page.

Page last reviewed: July 22, 2015