Building Bridges Between Safety Professionals and First Responders

Building Bridges Between Safety Professionals and First Responders

Safety professionals must build relationships with those in the public safety sector before an event occurs.

Many occupational health and safety professionals may be familiar with the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) that establishes local emergency planning committees (LEPC) for the safety of a community as it relates to chemicals.1 Some communities may not extend this information to its first responders.

The key foundation of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act is for elected officials, public safety professionals, environmental, transportation and hospital officials, facility representatives, community groups and the media to form a local emergency planning committee. Local emergency planning committees are further charged with developing emergency response plans that provide information to its community regarding the chemicals they may be exposed to.

On Jan. 20, 2020, the United States confirmed its first case of 2019-nCoV, more commonly referred to as COVID-19. This event that changed the world we know as safety professionals. A quick Google search shows many articles about the recent surge in exposures and organizations who have adjusted their business models to allow for telework. Nationally, some governments have shuttered their facilities to the public while many industries and critical infrastructure continue their daily operations. In some cases, the displacement of our workforce has increased the volume of volunteer public safety professionals, potentially creating an under-prepared emergency response force.

As volunteers increase, (or volunteers’ availability increases) there may be a lack of familiarity within the responder community as to how to gain facilities access, casualty collection points, egress routes or other critical building information. With dynamic changes occurring rapidly to protect critical workforces, the bridge between on-site and off-site emergency response operations may have also drastically changed. Now more than ever it is critical for our industries of OHS and public safety to build bridges.

Building Bridges

The first step is to reach out to the leadership teams within these public safety sectors—emergency medical services, emergency management services, fire and law enforcement, etc. Set up a time for everyone to get together, via Zoom, with members of your organization to discuss the capabilities of your organization’s facility as well as those of a local responders’ locale. This starts the relationship-building process before an event occurs. This also lets first responders tap into your organization’s disaster response resources.

During this initial outreach phase, it is beneficial to offer and conduct site or facility tours. During these tours, first responders can identify key areas that could impact their community such as access and egress routes for apparatus, fire suppression systems, casualty collection points or rally points and restricted access areas. If a facility has a restricted access area, it is critical to work with local responders to develop plans and contacts to ensure reasonable access is provided for the protection of life, property and the environment.

Cooperation Between Corporations and First responders

In response to COVID-19, we saw a national, innovative public-private partnership to ensure first responders had PPE. Yet, this public-private partnership might have existed in some communities prior to COVID-19 with a company or organization generously providing specialized response PPE to community responders. This cooperative approach is another step in building the bridge and connecting your facility to local first responders.

The next step in building a successful partnership between an organization and its local first responder community is continued training. Training programs can be as simple as site access to identify which gate or entrance to use and where to establish an incident command post. When it comes to training, it should not be a one-and-done process. Much like local emergency planning committees are required to review their plans annually, a structured training and exercise plan is critical to retaining knowledge and updating responders should a facility have major structural or procedural changes that impact operations.

The next step is to test the plans. To do so, it is strongly recommended that all conduct exercises. An exercise can start simply as a tabletop drill in which an aerial view of the facility is used to talk out various response points.

Testing the Plans

Aerial photography of the facilities or models can be extremely beneficial in learning and discussing responses in a no-fault learning environment.

Advancing from tabletop exercises, the options include a functional drill where the on-site and specific off-site responders test a given response function. An example of a functional exercise would be taking the aforementioned training of accessing the facility and establishing a command post and then testing how it works. Finally, the most complex exercise is a full-scale exercise.The facility, OSH professionals and trusted partners from the area response community would develop a scenario that would require a full response from both on-site and off-site responders.

These exercises not only build bridges and knowledge, but they are critical to ensuring the plans are validated and reflective of a whole community approach. Thus, exercises much like training, are learning environments that must be repeated to retain and enhance knowledge.

Building bridges with local responders is critical to ensuring strong response partnerships. With an ever-changing environment and efforts to protect those on-site employees, off-site responders are also vital partners in the safe operations of a company site. To build the bridge, safety managers and companies must meet response partners before an incident can happen, make plans on how both on-site and off-site partners will respond and conduct training and exercises to validate plans and continue our knowledge growth. Aaron M. Rhone, Ph.D., is a faculty member at Columbia Southern University in the College of Safety and Emergency Services. Dr. Rhone has nearly two decades of emergency response experience in emergency medical services, public health, emergency management and hazardous materials response.

This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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