First Responders can be Support Agencies too!

2 June 2023

When bad things happen, whether it be on a large scale such as a tornado or a smaller scale such as a motor vehicle collision, the first thing people do is call 911. This call activates a response: first responders including Police, Fire and Paramedics arrive on scene. When these men and women are called upon, they go into action: day in and day out.

Engaging with outside agencies may become a more frequent occurrence, and should be trained for.

First responders know this as a “call for service”. They don’t have to be told how to interact with each other, they operate within their mandate and expertise regardless of who is leading the incident. This is called “interoperability”.

For example, if there is a large fire, Fire leads the incident. Police and Paramedic Services understand that they are a support to the Fire Service. In this instance, Police will manage traffic and stabilize the site while Paramedics triage and transport the injured.

Now let’s change scenario to one in which the lead agency would be Police or Paramedics – any other service in attendance then becomes a support. All services work together to respond to the incident, focusing on their jobs, and supporting within their mandate. When the dust ­settles and everything is cleaned up, these same first responders go back to duty and wait for the next call.

Response to Rehabilitation

What happens when the incident persists until it is no longer a first responder-led event? This can become uncomfortable territory for first responders, who are now required to support an agency outside of the first responder world.

Let’s take a closer look at the challenges of this dynamic.

In September 2018, six tornadoes touched down in the National Capital Region. Many communities in the tornadoes’ paths suffered significant damage, particularly the community of Dunrobin which was hit hard and caused considerable damage to buildings in its wake.

As expected, once the 911 calls started coming in, a sea of lights and sirens began speeding to Dunrobin. Police stabilized the community, Fire performed building and debris searches for anyone trapped or injured, and Paramedics prepared triage. When these tasks concluded, the incident turned into a recovery that was led by various City departments. First responders had to shift from leading the incident to supporting departments that, in some cases, had no experience leading an incident.

From a policing standpoint, this became a challenge. The Police had been quick to establish a perimeter, re-routing traffic around the community and developing a system for entering the devastated area, and then proceeded to hold it (as they would a crime scene). There was only one problem with this approach, nature could not be arrested for producing the tornado.

As time went on, the police were still in first responder mode and held the scene. Managing the site like a crime scene meant logs to track entry and exit, and rules around who could even enter the site.

The city sent their people to manage the recovery, but the police already had so many security measures in place that, although well-intentioned, dragged the process of transferring the lead to the city.

Well, you can imagine the delays this caused for parts of the response. It was unheard of for volunteers to be entering a police crime scene, yet that had to happen. These volunteers, although integral to the recovery, were continually stopped by Police at the first check point. City vehicles that were required to assist in the response were also stopped by Police if they were lacking proof of access to the site. Construction trucks and heavy equipment were essential to the cleanup, but were delayed as well. A lot of valuable time was spent creating an authorization system for vehicles and people to be able to enter the site.

The end result was a delayed recovery process. What became painfully obvious here, was the need to know when your part is over and to quickly transfer the lead to the next group or agency. In the case of a city agency taking the lead, all first responders then become a support to that agency.

Although we often talk about a multi-agency, interoperable response, we don’t truly practice it outside of the first responder world. In the Dunrobin tornado response, it was easy to see the transfer of command from Fire to Police. However, the transfer of command from Police to other city departments such as Public Works, wasn’t as smooth.

The tornado response was successful from a first responder perspective, but first responders acting in a support role to non-first responder agencies was not, which became clear in the way the scene was managed.

Even if another agency is the lead, Police responsibilities do not change, but they are no longer the ones making the key decisions. This means the police have input as subject matter experts, but only for the things within their purview. In the case of the tornados, the Police role was traffic management, site security, public safety, peace and order. When the response changed to clearing debris, cleaning roads and assessing buildings for structural damage, none of these were Police responsibilities. The police presence at that point should have been one of support and facilitation.

But wait, you might say that police have authorities that can assist with entering buildings, removing people from buildings or dealing with trespassers. And how about the authority to block off roads and redirect traffic against traffic signals and one-way streets, all to expedite the arrival of critical equipment? Of course! These are all Police functions that have a role to play in support of a plan developed by another agency. Paramedic and Fire Services have similar authorities that can be applied when providing this same type of support.

Most, if not all, first responder services have training in either Incident Command System (ICS) or the Ontario Incident Management System (IMS). They’re taught Unity of Command, which means that they will report to a single supervisor, regardless of rank or agency. This structure allows for the creation of mixed agency teams or Task Forces in order to accomplish specific jobs. Do you sense how well unity works after reading about the tornado response?

What can be done to make sure there is ‘actual’ unity?

Let’s start with training. Strengthen your chances of achieving unity of command by taking every opportunity to interact with those partners that you would not normally train with.

Create a table top exercise that begins long after the initial response. If you choose a tornado, set the start several days after the initial incident. The response is then no longer about life safety but clean up and recovery.

Reach out to external agencies and take part in their functional or full-scale exercises. Regardless of the scenario, there will likely be a first responder role to play that will place them in a supporting position – in other words: not being in charge, not making decisions, and not formulating plans. Engage with partners you didn’t think would have a role in a response and find out about their authorities.

Review your After Action Reports from the lens of a support agency. As a first responder agency, were you able to participate in a non-decision-making capacity yet operate within your specific authorities? If not, consider a tabletop exercise with the other agencies to test your ability to operate as a support. If that isn’t possible right away, develop an authority document that outlines each agencies’ authorities. In a large-scale incident, this document could become very useful in the response and for the development of objectives, strategies, tactics and the incident action plan.

First responders are the people who work on the frontline and rush in when people are running out or need help. They work as a unified group trained to make decisions under high stress situations with the common goal of saving lives. When the dust settles and the first responder actions and decision making are no longer required, they are still integral to the response. First responders don’t always have to be in decision-making mode – the role of support to other departments and outside agencies is just as important as the initial response.

This understanding of being a support agency can help expedite the recovery and return to normal or a new normal. After all, the public expects first responders to be helping in all emergency situations. Let’s show them it’s possible!

Sam Roberts an Emergency Management Coordinator with 25 years of experience in law enforcement. He is a certified instructor in Incident Management System and Incident Command System.