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Expanding the “Team Approach”:
How Emergency Responders and Those They Serve Can Work Together to Promote Prevention and Coordinate Incident Response

By Cathleen Corbitt-Dipierro
Interactive Designer
interFIRE VR and Bomb Threat Response: An Interactive Planning Tool for Schools

Emergency response professionals are among the busiest in the world. Whether you are building institutional relationships, educating the public on prevention, responding to incidents, or investigating crimes, there is a never-ending conveyor belt of needs to be addressed. There’s so much work to be done that it is tempting, and even natural, to hunker down and plough through it on your own. But, over the past 5-10 years, most professionals have become aware that agencies with different mandates that touch different parts of the emergency response process must coordinate and work together to be effective. That coordination not only improves prevention efforts and response, but also, in the long run, alleviates the individual burden on agencies because the collective is greater than the sum of its parts.

interFIRE VR, an interactive scenario-based training experience from ATF and its institutional partners (USFA, NFPA, and American Re-Insurance) is a leading advocate of the “Team Approach,” where the fire service, law enforcement, special units (i.e., AK-9 Unit, Bomb Squad), EMS, and the medical profession all worked together to fully and properly investigate fires. The Team Approach relies heavily on pre-incident planning, execution in incident response, and coordination in follow-up. This approach is especially helpful for smaller departments with limited manpower, and helps the single fire investigator dramatically increase their productivity by pulling in other resources. Many agencies now recognize the value of this approach and have reached out to sister agencies to form their own fire investigation response plans.

Bomb Threat Response
The main interface from Bomb Threat Response, showing the major categories of instruction in the program, as well as the implementation resources and training aids to use with school-based personnel.

This process of working with organizations outside the emergency response and law enforcement community, is, in effect, planning with those you serve. In the past, most community institutions like schools only saw the fire department or police department when there was a problem that required immediate attention. This has caused, in many cases, misunderstandings and hard feelings about the way incidents, witnesses, and suspects are handled. To effectively respond and keep everyone safe, we need to redefine this relationship as a positive, professional working relationship with common goals and a clear division of responsibilities.

Bomb Threat Response - Designate Chain of Command
Step 12 of Bomb Threat Response's recommended process is "Designate Chain of Command," which takes a concept very familiar to emergency responders and shows school administrators how they can use that structure to ensure smooth and orderly operation of the school in a crisis situation.

With the advent of community policing and School Resource Officers, schools and emergency response agencies have naturally come closer together and the opportunity to formalize that relationship can have a lot of benefits for all parties:

  • Mutual understanding: All partners understand where the other is coming from, what pressures they are under, and what they need to operate effectively. This establishes a common language and a strong foundation for cooperation.
  • Shared expectations: All partners understand the role of each party in each type of incident and know what to expect.
  • Mutual aid: Emergency response agencies come to understand the physical layout and culture of the organization and can more effectively plan tactical response. The organization gets expert evaluation of its physical plant strengths and weaknesses and can take steps to “harden the target” against threats.
  • Pre-planning: All partners can together craft response plans for different types of situations. When everyone knows the steps in response, the response goes smoothly and you can concentrate on dealing with the specifics of the matter at hand, rather than making up a plan “on the fly.”
  • Coordinated response: When something does happen, everyone knows the plan and no time is wasted. Response goes more smoothly and you can concentrate on execution, rather than negotiating the plan.
  • Follow-up assistance: If an incident does occur, all partners will know about it and be prepared to do their part in the follow-up, whether it is criminal investigation, mental health evaluation, social services provision, or other needs.

But, where do you start? Here are five simple steps you can take today that will start the process on the right foot.

1. Make a List. Your community is full of organizations—businesses (large and small), non-profit organizations, schools, libraries, and more. List the organizations in your service area and organize them into categories like schools, businesses, etc. Bring the list to your supervisor or to your next response team meeting with other professionals and discuss it. What do you know, or think you know, about the different organizations? Who has contacts there? What would you like to discuss with each organization and how will you frame your approach? What would help you better serve that organization? Prioritize the list and ask various team members to be responsible for making first contact with the priority organizations.

2. Make a Phone Call. Contact the high-priority organizations. Introduce yourself to the decision-maker for that organization and briefly talk about what your department would like to do to create a mutually beneficial response partnership. Ask the decision-maker what his/her concerns are and how they feel they could better work with you to form a response plan. Set next steps to meet and further discuss how you will work together.

3. Pull in Other Agencies. Contact your partners at other emergency response agencies and explain to them that you have made an initial contact with an organization and would like to set up a meeting for everyone to discuss emergency response. Invite the other agencies to participate so the entire spectrum of responders has input.

4. Hold an Initial Meeting. The initial meeting is the place to lay the groundwork for a working relationship, or work through issues that have led to an unproductive, or even contentious, relationship. You can discuss expectations, define roles, talk about responsibilities, and address any misconceptions about what each partner does. Bomb Threat Response provides a step-by-step process for how to work together in planning, response, and follow-up stages, as well as worksheets to organize your planning. Leave the meeting with agreement to work together and a plan for future meetings and tasks to be accomplished. Consider formalizing your relationship in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to ensure institutional memory.

5. Follow-Up. Work through the process in BTR (or the process you formulate) in cooperation with the organization. Create a plan that meets both your needs, has clear roles and a clear process. Continue meeting to adjust and update the plan as needed.

Bomb Threat Response - Form and Train Search Teams
Step 10 of Bomb Threat Response's recommended process is "Form and Train Search Teams." Recognizing that emergency responders are not, in most cases, available to search a school in response to a bomb threat, this section of Bomb Threat Response uses video and virtual reality to show school-based personnel the best practices for searching their school.

If your service area contains more organizations than you can meet with individually, consider meeting individually with some of the largest institutions, such as schools, and then holding community meetings for other groups, such as local businesses. At these large-group meetings, you can dispel misconceptions, provide accurate information about the role of emergency response agencies, discuss best practices in topics like evacuation, sketch out the response process for different types of incidents and what cooperation with the organization is needed, and address questions and concerns. You can leave the door open for organizations to approach you after the meeting if they have individual issues.

The “road map” in Bomb Threat Response, although created for distribution to schools, is an approach that can be applied to many other organizations and to businesses. We must begin to think more expansively about how we address crisis response and work not only with our partner agencies, but also with those who were traditionally defined as receiving services only. They know their organizations best and are invaluable assets as we pre-plan for incidents that, hopefully, will never happen.

Bomb Threat Response: An Interactive Planning Tool for Schools is available from