#3 – Transboundary Crisis & Local Response Issues – Essential Elements of Information for a Culture of Preparedness


By Captain Charlie Meinema

Tacoma Washington Police Department


Disasters may be local, but few are.  Even local disasters are not local, as Yogi Berra might say.   This is often because criminals, explosions, terrorists and fires fail to respect jurisdictional borders, and / or because the crisis – even if inside one geographical or jurisdictional boundary – is too big for any one agency to handle with troops available at the time of the incident.  We staff according to anticipated ‘normal’ work load.  Any major event immediately stresses the system, because we have to send pretty much all we have and that leaves everything else insecure.   We just can not staff to crisis level unless we are SURE the crisis will occur – and when do we know that?  After it has happened.  

>> This is one problem constantly besetting the Israelis.  In the period 1969 / ’73, the Arab nations – especially the short lived United Arab Republic of Syria and Egypt – practiced a policy of ‘no war / no peace’ toward Israel.  There was – like today – constant agitation, raids, small incidents, and every fall large ‘war game’ exercises in western Egypt and Syria.  Israel routinely activated a significant percentage of reserves when raids reached a certain frequency and / or to offset the potential of the large annual war games, since Israel knew that their neighbors were only waiting for the right moment.  However, the cost of such heightened levels of activation became overwhelming to Israel.  Israel stopped the raised activation level during the fall ‘war games,’ due largely to the cost of the deployments.  


This of course was what the Arabs were awaiting and in 1973 the ‘normal war games’ were held on the west bank of the Suez Canal.  The Israelis did not make significant additional activations of reserves, because ‘they do this every year.’  1973 was different.  On Yom Kippur the Egyptians cut through the berms on the east side of the Suez Canal and the Yom Kippur War was launched.   Israel simply could not afford to keep staffing to a level appropriate to meet the threat unless they KNEW the threat was real on a particular occasion.


 We are all in this situation.  We live our lives day by day and the Devil waits for but a moment – but his moment spans far beyond our lifetimes.  The threat is always there, but we can not afford to staff sufficiently to address it on a daily basis.   


The ‘normal’ crisis (e.g. Lakewood, a suburb of Tacoma, just experienced a homicide / robbery of an armored car guard inside a major department store.) may be local to Pierce County, Washington, but may span 05 police jurisdictions and as many fire districts. 


One result of the ‘squad’ or ‘all crisis is local crisis’ mentality is ‘chasing the pain.’  Post operative pain medications are meant to be taken on schedule to PREVENT pain from becoming disabling (help me out here, Dr. von Lubitz).  People are told not to wait until they hurt – get ahead of the pain, don’t chase the pain – to take the pain meds because the meds take some time to begin to work.   If someone / agency thinks, ‘I can handle this,’ and he / they find they can not ‘handle it,’ the unnecessary delays in obtaining, briefing, deploying the help can result in a greatly increased level of ‘pain,’ as in New Orleans.    


If we experience a disaster in just one jurisdiction, we still likely have to deal with multiple departments within that one jurisdiction to handle it.  The problem still may require seeking outside help in the future of the event.  We would always be ahead if we not only trained to work together but also had an automatic briefing / notification system to alert nearby agencies of each other’s big issues as they emerge.   This would allow the groundwork for effective interaction when and if it is needed.  (e.g. On the small scale compared to the nation, the county wherein Tacoma dwells was ‘host’ to a large gathering of an outlaw motorcycle gang at one of their taverns.  This was an intentional display for turf and for recruiting – the bikers were in full colors and the party was in the parking lot of the tavern next to a major street.  Although the tavern hosting the event was 02 – 03 miles outside the city, the swing shift commander for TPD contacted his opposite number for Pierce County to determine how we would provide assistance if something were to erupt, such as another gang driving past the tavern and shooting – a plausible issue given motorcycle gang turf and dominance issues in the state recently).


Further, the contact gave the TPD commander a direct line from county on where the group was going when it left the tavern.  ‘tis always good to know if 40 – 60 bikers in full colors are motoring into your town before they get there.  However, had this gone badly, we would have had officers from other cities and the state patrol arriving to help in short order.   We do not have any automatic incident notification system that would tell ALL nearby agencies of the situation and which could be updated to include direction for responders.   Working on it.).  


A problem that probably hits us all is the scope of the disaster and appropriate assessment of crisis.  “How bad is it, really?”   Inevitably, after some major debacle we have reports of people who DID accurately predict the incident, attack,…., but could not get a serious hearing from anyone in position to make a difference.    Sometimes this is because the predictors – like the seers of old – said there would be an attack, but could not say where or when with any degree of certainty.   They only attain prescience in retrospect – and we have all probably met a few of these folks.   By contrast, sometimes disasters happen and the initial reports are accurate, but are not given sufficient weight.  The response is insufficient and the disaster – which might have been contained – grows out of control. 


[In the recent terrorist attack in Mumbai, I am sure initial intelligence reports / assessments were confusing.  Responses were not in scope to the level of attack.  Worse, the troops responding were using weapons they had almost never shot and suffered problems in coordination, …    I do not disparage Mumbai Police / military.  Any one facing what Mumbai faced is going to have a very bad time of it.  However, getting a handle on how big / bad the problem is as soon as possible is critical.]


For every legitimate disaster we have multiple Chicken Littles yelling ‘The sky is falling. The sky is falling,’ in regards to relatively minor issues.   We have to develop the ability to make rapid and accurate determinations of the level of crisis to trigger the appropriate level of response as quickly as possible.  . 


The military analogy to the above is having a plan for incorporating reinforcements / augmentations into the battle without loss of coordination.  Each squad has to fight as a squad (and often each man in the squad only knows what the squaddie to his right or left is doing at best), but it needs to be aware of at least what the squad on either side of it is doing, in case it has to defend a flank if their neighbor is overrun or has to detach a couple of riflemen or machine gun / mortar crew to reinforce a squad getting hit hard next to it.   No officer should go into battle without knowing some idea of what will need to be done, how do we proceed to the forward edge, where do we go, what do we need to prepare, how will we exploit a sudden opening, where is the rally point,.. ,if the enemy fails to react as expected – something the unpleasant enemy has a habit of doing.


All this is a lot of coordination even if we are on the attack.  ‘tis all that much harder when adversaries attack us.  If we fail to assess enemy strength and assume an assault is only a probe or the famous ‘reconnaissance in force,’ we are courting disaster.  The penny packet reinforcements sent will be gobbled up as they arrive and the crisis will only get worse.  If we make the right assessment and an effective deployment of reinforcements in strength coupled with combined arms support, we can – hopefully – stop the attack or at least minimize the damage.


In the civilian world, we are almost always on the defensive.   We can not eradicate a threat before it strikes.  We can not plan to attack a specific problem – we can and must develop the best possible plans for general responses.  In the modern world, such plans would not be old fashioned plans as we know them, but effective preparation for and use of the ‘teams of leaders’ concept and related ideas. 


In our world we have done a better job of determining generally what is available and how to request it in the past few years.  Alas, we still tend to await the actual crisis to have any serious work on what is needed at that moment in that situation, and how to integrate it effectively into our reaction without unnecessary loss of time and effectiveness.  We are still.‘chasing the pain,’ and the patients often suffer..

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