The Things That Keep Experts Up at Night

Read: “CBRNE Training,” August 2016 edition of DomPrep Journal

DomPrep wanted to know what still keeps experts up at night. To answer this question, DomPrep hosted and Ron Vidal, a partner at Blackrock 3 Partners, moderated a panel discussion on 17 June 2016 at the Annual International Hazardous Materials Response Teams Conference in Baltimore, Maryland. This article summarizes that discussion.

Fire and hazardous materials (hazmat) teams train for responses to intentional and unintentional chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosive (CBRNE) incidents. Emergency managers and homeland security professionals try to predict these possible threats. Public health professionals monitor for any threats to life and health. Emergency medical services and hospital personnel prepare to treat contaminated and infected people. Emergency preparedness and resilience professionals face many emerging threats, which include but are not limited to:

  • Intentional and unintentional disbursement of chemical agents
  • Weaponized viruses and bacteria
  • Radiological sources and exposure threats
  • State and non-state nuclear threats
  • Terrorist groups or lone wolves with high-yield explosives

Regardless the type of threat, one common concern was expressed by all panel participants when asked what keeps them up at night as they consider hazmat capabilities today compared to 5 or 10 years ago: In order to meet today’s ever-changing threat environment, the next generation must be trained to the same or higher level as previous generations.

No Escape From Disaster

After the introductions of the panelists, Vidal began the discussion by pointing out that, “Before you, sits 250 years of collective experience across just about every spectrum of public safety. With vacations and time off, this equates to about 70,000 nights for the panel members to think about what keeps them up at night.” This wealth of experience also brings a wealth of exposure to myriad stimuli, which poses challenges in addressing individual threats as well as many combinations of these threats.

Broad experience with civil unrest, train derailments, natural hazards, industrial incidents, and more gives Robert Maloney, emergency manager for Baltimore City, Maryland, a unique perspective when it comes to resource management and support. The intentional component adds a new dynamic to unintentional incidents. Maloney described how the challenges that emergency managers face as incidents occur with greater frequency or intensity are compounded by the fact that, “We don’t have the luxury of turning off the TV.”

The Incident Management System (IMS) is the standard framework for incident response, but effective incident management relies on people. Vidal raised the question about how to build a good support system for the people responding to threats and hazards. Dr. George Everly Jr., co-founder of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, mentioned a staggering public health statistic about surge (increased demand for medical or psychiatric services), “Across disasters, on average, 25 percent of the civilian population will require some form of direct psychiatric intervention.” Responders are also vulnerable, but on a different timeline. Everly stated that, “10 to 15 percent of responders have some measurable dysfunction or impairment (e.g., post-traumatic stress, job loss, domestic violence, divorce, suicides) as a result of working in significantly traumatic events.” Incident response plans need to consider the physical and mental health and welfare of responders.

Conflicting Priorities

As threat profiles change, incidents are not just big-city problems. Joseph Leonard Jr. (commander, U.S. Coast Guard, retired), senior consultant of Global Preparedness and Crisis Management at the Center for Toxicology & Environmental Health (CTEH), described a train derailment of oil tank cars in a small Oregon town that resulted in cascading events including: fire; damage to a wastewater treatment plant and other critical infrastructure; responders directly affected by the incident or needing to care for their families; and outdated equipment. That scenario emphasized the significant new risks faced by small communities with limited resources and the need to include other groups in the response matrix, such as public works personnel as first responders. When faced with compounding and escalating problems, the needs of the whole community must be prioritized across the various combinations of responders.

On the personal side, responders are challenged with prioritizing between community and family needs. According to Erin Mohres, safety and security director with CNA, there needs to be a balance when incorporating emerging threats into a standardized approach, “One of the mistakes that responders see is changing direction and priorities based on what is in vogue at the time or seen in the media.” With individual threats, there are many nuances to consider from the protection, planning, and response perspectives.

Mohres warned that planners and responders must be able to identify the real threats, which are not necessarily prioritized by public opinion. “It’s about striking the balance. Figuring out how to meet the needs of multiple stakeholders, which we all have to do, but at the same time doing what you know is a priority based on your own experiences.” One approach she suggested was to leverage requirements already in place, and then use those to integrate specific needs such as radiological/nuclear preparedness that senior officials may have to de-prioritize in an atmosphere of limited resources.

Perception vs. Reality

The interconnectedness of critical infrastructure, mobile networks, data centers, etc. can also have potential wide-scale implications for disaster response. An incident involving critical infrastructure could have far-reaching effects across the country. Christopher Wrenn, vice president of Americas sales for Aessense Corporation, noted that, for threat detection, one of the biggest issues is that, “Companies are just not going to be investing in homeland security because it is no longer a funding-rich environment that has the money to pay for new technologies. If one has to choose between paying for personnel or new product they will pay for keeping their personnel.  We can see dramatic shifts in the market with a big retraction both by Smiths and Environics to name just two.”

Many people have become afraid of the wrong things, with the media portraying the nation as a hyper-violent place. Charles Bailey, assistant fire chief with the Montgomery County Fire/Rescue Service, described this concern as an “availability issue.” He said that it feels like there are more threats because, “The world is more complex, interconnected, and tightly coupled than ever. You know about situations all over the globe you could not have known about in the past. In this way, it feels like there are more threats, but really, you just know more about the ones that were already there. People sometimes complain about a lack of imagination on the part of planners, as if their plans should have seen all the threats in advance, but it’s not possible to imagine everything.” There is a disproportionate impact based on the state of preparedness and resilience at any particular location.

Anthony Mangeri, director of strategic relations for fire services and emergency management and faculty member of the American Public University System, pointed out that risks have changed over time, “As funds diminish, many preparedness and response systems losing funding do not necessarily maintain the level of readiness from when funded.” For managing unknown threats, Mangeri noted that emergency managers should not plan for events, “an incident may not fit the specific profile to activate a hazard-specific plan.” Rather than planning for certain incidents, emergency managers should plan for consequences based on community factors that remain constant regardless the cause of the incident – for example, population, density, evacuation routes, and sheltering strategies.

With the media bringing attention to many problems that may have existed before but were not as visible, Maloney noted the sometimes unfair connection between job security and performance. “Unfortunately, the expectations when an incident happens in one place in the country and then happens to you – whether you are ready for it or have the money to prepare for it – your performance better be up to speed because, if not, you aren’t going to be employed.” This “perception vs. reality” is a challenge that agencies across the nation face.

Since it is not possible to plan for every threat, it is critical to consider the likelihood of threats, hazards, and risks within each community or jurisdiction. In doing so, resources, planning, and training can be applied where they are needed the most. Garry McCormick, battalion chief at Charlotte Fire Department, agreed that the causative events in the past, present, and future are not the same, but the commonalities for the consequences are similar – planning, evacuating, sheltering, etc. He noted that the key difference between response plans is the intent, “If you take the causative event out of it, the system is set up ‘business as normal’ for each community using an all-hazards approach, but what changes is the roles for each agency.”

Technology vs. Critical Thinking

Emerging technology also raises threats in many areas. For example, Mangeri is concerned about the impact of technology on biologics, “As technology becomes cheaper and more accessible, the threat increases as those that intend to do us harm have access and means to attack.”

Location also plays a role in severity of an incident. Glen Rudner, hazardous materials compliance officer at Norfolk Southern Corporation, described the concern he referred to as the “Tokyo or Japanese effect,” which involves multiple simultaneous incidents (e.g., earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear incident), “We don’t go far enough into our plans – such as mass evacuation and mass sheltering.”

 In urban areas, Maloney noted that public expectations during a disaster – such as grocery stores having food, phone service and electricity being operable, pharmacies being accessible and fully stocked – tend to be unrealistic.  “In urban areas, the onus is on government to solve problems, but rural areas don’t have the same expectations,” he said.

When asked about statistical analysis, Mangeri stated, “Statistics plays a role the way triage plays a role in mass casualties. Triage and deployment of resources to do the most good is an essential part of emergency management. But understanding the threat and securing or developing the resources is also a major part of emergency preparedness.”

Bailey made three interesting points on this topic:

  • “Planning is a function that serves a primary socio-political role and is not necessarily directly tied in most cases to actual outcomes.”
  • “The western notion of a centralized command and control structure over a disparate number of emergencies is a failed notion and only begins to work on the consequence management side.” Rather than imposing a structure on communities, he suggested that the focus should be on supporting the self-organization process that occurs naturally.
  • “There should be less time spent writing detailed plans and more time learning how to assess the situation, how to make sense of what is happening, how to think, how the technology works, and how to communicate better.”

Although several other panelists expressed disagreement with these points, there was consensus that a major concern for all planners is how to take care of citizens when an incident occurs. Everly warned that, “We have to be careful being hammers and seeing the world as nails,” especially considering that, “compliance is essential when it comes to many of the threats we’ve been talking about.” He continued, “The human vector becomes an essential extension of the contagion of that element whatever it is (panic, suicide, depression, and behavioral paralysis are all contagious).”

To address this issue, Everly worked with researchers to conduct a survey – published in 2013 in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health – that defined five key questions that, if answered, would reduce 90 percent of public fear:

  • What happened?
  • What caused it?
  • What are the effects?
  • What are you doing about it?
  • What are you doing to keep this from happening in the future?

He warned that, when these questions are not answered, people tend to make up their own answers. Once control of information is lost, it is difficult to regain it. In his experience working with survivors in 22 different countries, Everly noted that most people do not want government to fix the problem for them, but they do want the tools to fix it themselves, “Ultimately, our job is to empower people.” As such, information sharing is critical.

Building a Legacy

On the topic of human resources, Wrenn expressed that the greatest CBRNE threat is a drain on training, as numerous hazmat professionals are promoted or retire. No magic technology can solve the problem, so incoming subject matter experts need to replace outgoing subject matter experts. As many “gray-haired people” retire, he urges young people by saying, “If you don’t take the baton and run with it, shame on you.”

According to Mangeri, this training challenge stems from “the way we have trained the past generation, with limited balance of critical thinking.” He proposed that practitioners encourage ongoing training and remind people that a certification is just the beginning. Being experts on particular subjects requires basic understanding of the science behind these subjects, without becoming too dependent on the technology to do the thinking for responders.

Central to all of the things that keep the experts up at night is the people – those who respond and how they respond, those who are subject to the event and what to do with them, but Vidal noted, “Artificial intelligence and the machines that learn may be pushing us further apart. The nature of how people learn is changing.”

“A simplistic view in training classes is that we’ve gone away from the basics,” said Rudner. “The things that we learned as the ‘gray hairs’ and took for granted are the things that are extremely important learning points that are not being transferred to younger generations.”

 Although there was some disagreement on exactly what people need to know, Christina Flowers, U.S. sales account manager for BioFire Defense, summed up the solution as, “Nobody will know everything. The problem is when you make the assumption that you know everything there is to know, and you do not try to continue to learn more.” If someone does not know how to interpret or understand something, they need to know who does.

The final challenge discussed was how to fill positions with people trained to an expected competency and level. In his 40 years as a college professor, Everly noticed that, “Kids today are just as bright as we were, but they are far more ignorant. They lack information (and experience). We failed to teach critical thinking. We have good test takers, but not always good thinkers. We now need to reintegrate not just the facts, but the thinking behind the facts.”

As Mangeri explained this concept, “College is about learning why something occurs. Training is about applying what you’ve learned.”  And, the ability to effectively respond comes with experience applying knowledge in various situations. However, failure in training is acceptable when it allows people to learn and develop an understanding of the cause and effect of decisions. It is better to learn from such activities in training than in an active response.

The right combination of training, knowledge, money, and leadership can maintain continuity, but people need to take responsibility. People outside the incident response also need to have enough information. However, Mohres has found that, “There is an incredible amount of training materials for specific audiences. However, either the training is so high level that it dissuades you from wanting to learn more or it’s so technical that nobody has the time. There needs to be a middle level of training material or technical assistance that the government officials, emergency managers, and homeland security people can use to better understand what the responders need.” Training must be able to meet the needs.

Ongoing Challenges

So, to meet today’s challenges, many things keep these experts up at night:

  • There is a lot of pressure in emergency preparedness and resilience, so the thought of failure in the job and letting down coworkers or communities weighs heavy.
  • Television and news outlets are not incentivized to tell the truth, thus often promoting fear and increasing consequences.
  • So much information is available, but knowing how to use it and how to process it can paralyze decision-making abilities.
  • Inaction at all levels of government and society expose societies to greater threats and consequences.
  • As older generations retire, there is concern about who will be stepping up to fill positions and whether they will be ready to solve the ever-changing problems.
  • The lack of understanding of biologics and integration of public health for highly infectious emerging diseases makes communities more vulnerable.
  • Lack of integration and interoperability has been pushed but not implemented since 9/11, thus making response efforts less effective.
  • There is a concern that someday organizations will have all the dots, but will not be able to connect them fast enough.
  • Society cannot recover if the human element does not recover, but there is still a lack of understanding and appreciation of the human side of incidents.

Despite the above concerns, these subject matter experts also understand that potential solutions exist through better training, education, and leadership. The older generation needs to pass on their skills, knowledge, and training, and the younger generation needs to take advantage of every opportunity to learn more.

In This Issue

The authors in this edition of the DomPrep Journal address the concerns that keep them up at night with regard to CBRNE issues. George Everly leads this month’s edition with the most important part of incident response: the people. CBRNE incidents introduce higher levels of stress and psychological toxicity that should not be ignored.

Education, training, and experience need to align with potential threats. Experience that is not passed on to younger generations, Christopher Wrenn warns, could hinder the ability to maintain a steady state of preparedness. No city is immune to threats, but the nature of emergency management and the public’s expectations are changing. Robert Maloney shares his experience of facing complex incidents that are sometimes compounded by simultaneous events. 

Research on threats, hazards, and risks provides necessary information to help better prepare and equip communities for these growing complexities. For example, Erin Mohres and Darren Chen describe how to apply innovative approaches to prepare for radiological and nuclear incidents. Whereas, Joseph Leonard explains how a risk-based approach could help determine the appropriate level of training required for a particular area. Understanding the potential threats and learning how to spot suspicious activity could help save lives before a crisis occurs, as described by Jerome Kahan.

To ensure the proper level of response for an incident, Anthony Mangeri recommends categorizing hazmat teams based on their capabilities. The National Incident Management System is one tool used across the country to facilitate incident response. However, Charles Bailey points out that it may not be the best solution for every incident. Rounding out the issue is an article by Patrick Call describing the importance that manufacturers place on ensuring that responder tools are designed and function properly for use in hazardous environments. Addressing the things that keep the experts up at night should be the top priorities for any communities that want to ensure resilience for CBRNE and other emerging threats.

Special thanks to the following sponsors, panel participants, and writers who made this issue possible:

Charles Bailey, Assistant Fire Chief, Montgomery County Fire/Rescue Service

Patrick Call, Regional Manager, CBRNE Detection Division, FLIR Systems Inc.

George Everly Jr., Ph.D., Co-founder, International Critical Incident Stress Foundation

Christina Flowers, U.S. Sales Account Manager, BioFire Defense

Chris Hawley, Founding Partner, Blackrock 3 Partners Inc.

Jerome H. Kahan, Independent National and Homeland Security Analyst

Joseph Leonard Jr. (CDR, USCG, Ret.), Senior Consultant–Global Preparedness and Crisis Management, Center for Toxicology & Environmental Health (CTEH)

Robert Maloney, Emergency Manager, Baltimore City, Maryland

Anthony Mangeri, Director of Strategic Relations for Fire Services and Emergency Management and Faculty Member, American Public University System

Garry McCormick, Battalion Chief, Charlotte Fire Department

Erin Mohres, Safety and Security Director, CNA

Mark Reuther, Vice President, Proengin Inc.

Glen Rudner, Hazardous Materials Compliance Officer, Norfolk Southern Corporation

Ron Vidal, Partner, Blackrock 3 Partners Inc.

Christopher Wrenn, Vice President of Americas Sales, Aessense Corporation

Catherine L. Feinman

Catherine L. Feinman, M.A., joined Domestic Preparedness in January 2010. She has more than 35 years of publishing experience and currently serves as editor of the Domestic Preparedness Journal,, and The Weekly Brief. She works with writers and other contributors to build and create new content that is relevant to the emergency preparedness, response, and recovery communities. She received a bachelor’s degree in International Business from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s degree in Emergency and Disaster Management from American Military University.



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