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How Far Have We Really Come

by Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

EMA Emergency Management, EMS Emergency Medical Services, FD Fire Departments, Law Enforcement, badges article logo label

It’s coming up on fourteen years since that terrible September morning when those terrorists flew planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a group of on-board patriots took a fourth plane into a field outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, saving countless.

In the aftermath, there were investigations and analysis of the public safety response to the disasters in New York, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville. While those post-incident reviews documented and confirmed courageous work by first-responders on the scene, they also revealed a variety of systemic deficiencies, and in some cases, outright failures.

Perhaps the most global of these findings, particularly surrounding the public safety operations at the World Trade Center collapses and fires, was the lack of coordination of communication and information sharing amongst the multiple public safety agencies that responded to the incident. Yes, there were radio interoperability issues between law enforcement, fire, and EMS that day, but the far larger issue identified was the organizational cultures of those agencies that hindered, rather than fostered, effective communications and information.

A term for this that many people are familiar with is “information silos”. In an article posted on in October 2013, The Silo Mentality: How To Break Down The Barriers, the authors described the phrase as:
The Silo Mentality as defined by the Business Dictionary is a mindset present when certain departments or sectors do not wish to share information with others in the same company. This type of mentality will reduce efficiency in the overall operation, reduce morale, and may contribute to the demise of a productive company culture.

Good business definition and one that applies equally to the internal and external management of information within public safety agencies. It is also equally applicable to how public safety organizations share information with each other in our communities. Here are a couple of examples:

   •   A law enforcement agency that has extensive information on gang activity in the community, but doesn’t share with the fire department or EMS department.
   •   A fire department that has information on the locations and storage of hazardous materials, but doesn’t share it with law enforcement or EMS.
   •   A law enforcement agency, fire department, and EMS agency have all developed plans for managing a mass-shooting event in the community, but no one agency knows what the plans of the other two look like or what will be expected of their agency.

Information silos don’t only apply to the sharing of plans, information or data; the concept also applies to the acquisition and use of resources. How many communities have public safety agencies that operate with separate and autonomous budgeting and procurement processes? In those communities, what do you think are the odds that there is redundancy in the purchase and acquisition of equipment and vehicles? Can public safety organization continue to operate like this in times of stagnant or decreasing funding or times of greater public scrutiny of how we operate?

At the Ready Magazine will be hosting the FEMA Region IV First Responder Expo, September 11th to 13th in Columbus, Georgia. This first-of-its-kind event will focus on provide training, demonstrations, and new equipment opportunities to a fire service demographic population—smaller departments that make up 47% of EMS personnel, 72% of law enforcement and 87% of firefighter departments nationwide—offering services generally only available for the big city agencies.

On Friday, September 11th, 2015 the Expo will “kick off” with panel discussion, Information Silos: What they are and how we can tear them down to make public safety better. Make plans now to attend this sure to be informative and enlightening discussion on how public safety organizations can get better at sharing the necessary information and resources to improve the quality of life in their communities.

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