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When Can We Stop Training for Terrorism?

Time to focus on what we're the threats we're seeing today

This posting was originally written in 2005 and reflected my views on how expenditures of time and money were being wasted in the name of terrorism training. Not much has changed over the eight years since I originally published this article' except for a decrease in preparedness funding, of course. We've seen several assaults on civilian soft targets resulting in mass casualties during this time as well. Some have been labeled "terrorism" some have not. While we can debate the usefulness of terrorism as a descriptor of what we face, we can't ignore the fact that our responses to these events are not much improved from the pre-9/11 days.

From 2005...
Our language reflects how we think and act. When we place a term on an issue, that term becomes face or imprint in our mind for that given issue. Terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are two terms arisen out of the September 11, 2001 attacks that have been imprinted on us. Although not entirely new terms for many in the traditional response group of emergency medical service (EMS), fire service, and law enforcement; terrorism and WMD became the language defining events of National crisis. These and several other terms have taken on a center stage appearance since 9-1-1. Highly paid “experts” have become obligatory content in any number of trade journals and conferences. Emergency service organizations have received millions of grant dollars to purchase training/education, equipment, and supply all to be brought to defend against terrorism/WMD. 

Most of the training that has been conducted is next to meaningless. A majority of the training conducted lacks context to what is encountered and managed every day. That is to say; we need to take the all-hazards approach to training and relate the material to the bread-and-butter jobs paramedics, EMT’s and firefighters respond to. Doing so will keep the skills and knowledge fresh and usable. If we continue to wrap this material up and say “don’t open ‘till terrorist attack” we will not be able to use it properly. We must take the message given by intentional event training and project it across routine, every day events. I believe the terms terrorism and WMD should be replaced with intentional events.

A good example would be to apply the all-hazards approach to triage. Ask any group of emergency medical technicians or firefighters, veterans or rookies, if they’ve ever worked an event that they’ve needed to do triage. You might get one or two that have, but the majority will claim to have never needed their triage skills. In reality we all have. The fact is that we do triage on each and every call we’re on. Triage means to sort and prioritize. We do that with every patient, looking at injuries and complaints, making decisions about what to treat first and how. Firefighters triage the situation, the building and the fire…only it’s called size-up, and we’ve been doing it for years. Educators who can describe intentional event preparedness in this format will be giving the student the tools to truly be prepared.

"If we continue to wrap this material up and say “don’t open ‘till terrorist attack” we will not be able to use it properly."

I’ve found numerous training officers who would come to me after a lecture and buoyantly declare “this WMD stuff is all well and good, but my guys need to get back to basics”. I usually ask those officers if they believe the “basics” include training on poisons and toxics like organophosphate materials. Or, might we be able to find time in our zealous training schedule to include basics of mass casualty management. Oh, the irony of it all! For these same training officers do not hesitate to defend the need for hazardous materials or mass casualty training yet miss the more than obvious relationship between intentional events and the hazardous materials event or bus crash. I guess if we call it haz-mat they’re OK with it, but; terrorism…hell, terrorism can’t happen here, right? Not to mention the probability of a natural event impacting any community.

The point here is this; we have to blend what we’ve come to know as terrorism/WMD training into the “basics” of EMS and fire service. To do so is simple because of the similarities between the intentional (terrorist/WMD) event and haz-mat accidents, mass casualty events, and natural disasters.

What do accidents, man-made events (human initiated to be politically correct), and natural disasters (ice storms, hurricanes, earth quakes, floods) have in common? The short list of examples include:

  • Little or no warning
  • potential for large numbers of civilians needing assistance
  • multiple casualties and fatalities
  • protracted operations
  • limited resources


The all-hazards approach looks at preparing us for a multitude of potentials. Not everyone has to be ready for a blizzard or a wildland fire, but we should all be cognizant of the need for self-protection, working within the incident management systems, triage and the like. We also must take advantage of our existing knowledge and skill base by putting them to use in the context of terrorism/WMD events.

The labels of terrorism and WMD may have been a great disservice to our responders and citizens. Those terms imply an event that most people don’t believe will ever happen to them. However, the principles, tactics, and added knowledge that training for intentional events advocate can traverse a multitude of disciplines and events.

Let’s try to change our thinking...when will it happen here?

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