Enhancing Zones to Protect the Emergency Responder

Although the concept of armed persons targeting responders is not new, several 2012 lone-shooter incidents – at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado; at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut; and at a house fire in West Webster, New York – have raised greater concern among emergency responders for personal safety when arriving on scene. Specifically, on 24 December 2012 in West Webster, four firefighters were shot – two mortally wounded and two others injured – when responding to a fire that was deliberately set by the gunman. That incident, among others, raises concerns not only about the security of the scene itself, but also the security of the overall response efforts.

Response & Scene Security

Based on the type of incident, fire, emergency medical services (EMS), and hazardous materials (hazmat) teams should consider reworking standard operating procedures and guidelines for developing a secure zone around operational areas. Reviewing and, if necessary, updating the procedures and guidelines will ensure that the teams have enough room to handle all operations on scene with minimal fear of attack. Areas of concern to consider include:

  • People management – limiting the number of required responders within each of the designated working zones and ensuring that there is someone guarding the scene as operations continue;
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) – purchasing and regularly using the best level of PPE (although many departments have body armor to protect personnel in high-risk/high-crime areas, this may not be the best solution or an appropriate response for fire, EMS, and hazmat teams); and
  • Information sharing – transmitting sufficient information from the dispatching agencies to the emergency responders who will be on the scene.

Zones & Perimeters

After addressing concerns about people management, PPE, and information sharing, emergency responders then should consider integrating the fire and EMS “zones” (hot, warm, and cold) into the law enforcement “perimeter lines” (inner and outer). Traditionally, fire, EMS, and hazmat teams use three zones to define the safety areas of an incident, but they do not always take into consideration the two perimeters that are defined and used by law enforcement.

The three zones include: (a) The “hot zone,” where the release, problem, and/or hazard are located; (b) the “warm zone,” where decontamination, equipment staging, etc. occur; and (c) the “cold zone,” where the command post is located, personnel are staged, and other activities that do not require any specialized equipment are performed. Unfortunately, that is where the incident perimeter ends for the fire, EMS, and hazmat services, but even the cold zone is still in fact considered by the law enforcement community as part of the “inner perimeter.” The “outer perimeter” then offers a “buffer” zone for the incident scene and a protective area for emergency responders, as well as areas for other incident-related needs – for example, rehabilitation, equipment staging, and additional support staff.

Communicating & Working Together

There has been a tremendous amount of discussion and progress since the events of 9/11 with regard to interoperability. More than just a term for synchronized radio communications, “interoperability” also means that the multiple agencies that respond to both minor and major incidents must be able to speak to each other and work together for the good of the community. When an incident occurs, emergency responders should ask for and provide sufficient information, carefully determine the type of response needed, and establish an open line of communications with law enforcement personnel as they determine the needs and set the limits of the outer perimeter.

Today, many law enforcement agencies respond to most, if not all, of the same incidents that require fire, EMS, and hazmat responses. At the scene of an incident, law enforcement personnel can provide tremendous resources – including intelligence and more importantly protection – to other first responders.

Glen Rudner
Glen Rudner

Glen Rudner retired in 2022 as a manager of environmental operations for the Norfolk Southern (NS) Railway with environmental compliance and operations responsibilities in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Previously, he was the hazardous materials compliance officer for NS’s Alabama Division (covering Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and southwestern Tennessee). Prior to NS, he served as one of the general managers at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center in Pueblo, Colorado. He worked as a private consultant and retired as a hazardous materials response officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. He has nearly 42 years of experience in public safety. He spent 12 years as a career firefighter/hazardous materials specialist for the City of Alexandria Fire Department, as well as a former volunteer firefighter, emergency medical technician, and officer. As a subcontractor, he served as a consultant and assisted in developing training programs for local, state, and federal agencies. He serves as secretary for the National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee on Hazardous Materials Response. He is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs Hazardous Materials Committee, a member of the American Society of Testing and Materials, and a former co-chairman of the Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition. He served as a member of the FEMA NAC RESPONSE Subcommittee.



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