Perhaps ice cream socials aren’t the first thing that spring to mind when you think about a first responder drill. But it’s something that journalist Chris Faraone thought of during the recent “Urban Shield” exercises in Boston. He writes in a recent article in the Weekly Dig:
I arrived at the presser in time to hear Mayor Marty Walsh welcome delegates from the Metro-Boston Homeland Security Region–a network that includes the Hub and eight surrounding municipalities–plus emergency medical and fire personnel. In his comments, Walsh extolled the spirit of collaboration, while Office of Emergency Management Director Rene Fielding touted the relationships built through two prior Urban Shield runs.
Wondering if organizers added anything to this year’s schedule to bolster inter-agency communication, I asked Fielding and the uniforms beside her if they’d planned any meet-and-greet activities besides the mock trainings. “Something like an ice cream social,” I queried (they hadn’t). I was serious. Officials said that people “shouldn’t be alarmed” about the presence of 2,000 first responders in helmets and riot gear. That’s not possible–those visuals are inevitably frightening–but it might be reassuring if their interpersonal relationships were more than merely militant.
Mr. Faraone is what one would call a progressive journalist — my father might lean toward the term “leftist commie” — and the article generally addresses the militarization of law enforcement. I share some of the same concerns that he and those quoted in the piece have on this issue, though unfortunately while aiming at the right target he hit this exercise instead. While the natural tendency to see every problem as a nail when you’re only holding a hammer is real enough, the scenarios included in the Urban Shield exercise are not driven solely by the desire to pull out the guns.
That criticism aside, what Faraone suggests in terms of an ice cream social points to an underlying truth. As he put it:
As for first responders intermingling … for logistical purposes, they were mostly clustered with their own–transit fuzz with transit fuzz, triage officers with triage officers, and so forth.
I’ve noticed the same behavior in the few exercises I’ve observed. Am I missing something? Or are the participants basically all playing their assigned departmental roles with little to no overlap at the levels under leadership positions? While the higher ranks are “swapping business cards before game day,” i.e. leadership planning and responding together, are the rank-and-file actually getting the opportunity to meet and understand the roles of their opposites in the other responder disciplines?
This was an issue identified by a recent Harvard Kennedy School of Government report, “Why Was Boston Strong:”
Public safety organizations should develop improved doctrine, better training, and practice through exercises to ensure effective “micro-command” in crises. While officers typically look for command authority when operating at a scene with groups from their own agencies, they are less likely to do so when they have deployed as individuals and arrive at an emergency site on their own. Except for situations when near-instantaneous action is required to preserve life, doctrine should be developed and officers should be trained to look for authority at a scene of mass action, even if command is taken by someone from another organization.
One of report’s authors, Dutch Leonard, referred to this in Congressional testimony where he broke down the different experiences of responders:
By virtue of doctrine and years of joint planning and practice and work on multiagency events, the senior leaders of the relevant organizations for the most part knew one another personally and had knowledge of and confidence in each other’s capabilities – and they were able rapidly to form unified commands, both on Monday afternoon and again in Watertown in the early hours of Friday morning. Individual police officers arriving from other jurisdictions at the scene of the gunfight at Dexter and Laurel Streets Watertown had none of those advantages to help them form a coordinating structure. We need better doctrine, procedures, training, and practice to aid in the more rapid development of a command structure among people from different agencies arriving more or less independently and not under a preexisting overarching command structure. We refer to this as the problem of establishing “microcommand,” and dealing with this requires that the doctrine that is now working well to coordinate agencies at the senior level needs to be cascaded downward so that it functions at any level where the agencies may encounter one another.
It is this problem where Faraone’s ice cream socials, or some other equivalent, might actually help. The issue isn’t one of militarism, but understanding and recognition among tactical-level operators. Not just of mission, but role and structure.
On a final note, though I may disagree with the sentiments of some quoted in Faraone’s article about the nature of the Urban Shield exercises, I have to admit that criticism of terrorism preparedness drills so soon after an actual terrorist attack in the same city strengthens my admiration of our system of democracy. Always question – never simply accept. Even when it seems to fly in the face of those protecting the public, this sentiment helps preserve our underlying freedoms.