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Friday, 09 May 2014 17:55

Counterterrorism Incident Response Featured

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Counterterrorism Incident Response


Terrorism and other emergency incidents are unpredictable (Haddow & Bullock, 2010). The US Justice Department recognizes the need for quick and appropriate response to critical incidents including terrorism and natural disasters. Preparedness is the feasible recommendation for fast and appropriate emergency response. The Oklahoma City Bombing provided great lessons for disaster preparedness. The disaster is not remembered only because of the high number of casualties, but because of the work done following the occurrence of the disaster. The response mission including rescue and recovery actions provide lessons upon which future actions are modeled. Response strategies across the levels of government must reflect stipulations of the National Response Plan. This critical incident evaluation paper explores the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing and provides a number of recommendations for future counter-terrorism and emergency response. Focus is placed on the lessons learned from the critical incident and expectations for future terrorism incident response strategies.

  1. Introduction
    Terrorism as a Critical Incident
    1. The Oklahoma City Bombing
  2. Counter-Terrorism and Emergency Response
  3. Operational Strengths of the Response
  4. Evaluation of Response Tactics
    1. Crime Scene Management
    2. Transportation
    3. Communication
    4. Fire Fighting
    5. Information and Planning
    6. Resource Support
    7. Public Information

The major feature of contemporary terrorism is its nature of unexpectedness (Haddow & Bullock, 2010). The manner and time of attacks cannot be predicted. They catch innocent targets by surprise. Traditionally, targets were symbolic figures including politicians. In the majority of cases, perpetrators stated what their intentions were. In the current terrorist scenarios, targets are unclear. Terrorists attack civilians indiscriminately without prior warnings. This makes prevention and response very difficult. However, conducting an evaluation of responses to past incidences can provide great lessons for the future. Responding fast and appropriately to critical incidents is a vital part of the overall strategy of protecting the country from terrorism. This is a role coordinated by the department of defense. Past incidences such as the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Branch Davidian Standoff in Waco, Texas, 9-11 attack, and Hurricane Katrina have raised questions on our ability to prevent and respond to emergency situations.

The purpose of this review paper is to analyze the response to Oklahoma City Bombing and provide recommendations for ideal management of future terrorist attacks. This paper will look at response areas including crime scene management, evidence collection, personnel management, and tactical aspects of emergency management.  

On April 19, 1995 at exactly 0902 hours, a deadliest attack on the US soil occurred (Taley, 2006). Terrorists dropped a bomb at the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. The bomb, dropped from a truck, ravaged a third of the building, sending shockwaves across the midlands city of the United States. At the time of the bombing, an approximated 850 people were in the building. Prior to the bombing, the building housed several federal agencies including the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the Social Security Administration (SSA), the Department of Defense, the recruitment offices of the US Army and the US Marine Corps, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other state agencies. In terms of domestic terrorism, this attack is the most dangerous in the history of United States. It killed 168 and injured hundreds of US citizens.

Although severe damage was limited to the Murrah Building, the damage resulting from the exposition extended beyond the building to several locations at downtown Oklahoma (The Oklahoma Department of Civil Emergency Management, 1996). It covered an approximated 48-square block area. The impact of the bomb overturned automobiles. Many vehicles caught fire after the blast. The 24-storey Regency Tower, the historic Journal Record Building, the Athenian Building, and the Oklahoma Water Resources Board building received heavy damage. Other buildings that experienced damage include the U.S. Post Office, YMCA, First Methodist Church, and St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Primary and back-up telephone lines for the local ambulance and Emergency Medical Services Authority (EMSA) were damaged (Ibid). Consequently, 911 was the only remaining communication. However, several Emergency Medical Service Units responded from the EMSA headquarters upon hearing the blast.

In order for sufficient response, it is fundamental to define critical incident. According to the Department of Defense’s definition, critical incidents are actions including natural disasters, hostage situations, group defiance of government authority, and acts of terrorism. These incidents involve one or more of the following factors. It involves violence or acts of threats against the government or social institutions; involves significant loss of life, injuries, and damage to property, demands substantial use of resources; attracts close public scrutiny through the media, requires coordination among federal agencies (law enforcement agencies, local prosecutors, and, emergency response and relief services) and; requires on-going communication with upper-level personnel at the Justice Department. The presence of any one of these factors by itself may not necessarily imply a critical incident.

In anticipation of injuries, emergency personnel established two medical triage areas quickly (Oklahoma Department of Civil Emergency Management, 1996). The first one was for primary triage and treatment, and the second one was for secondary triage and treatment. People who were injured were positioned at these areas awaiting medical assessment, immediate treatment, and prioritized transportation. Immediately, fire, law enforcement, emergency medical, volunteers, and civilians entered the building for a massive search and rescue mission. In some cases, human chains were formed to ensure safe and rapid removal of injured persons. At least two scares of subsequent bombs forced the evacuation of rescue personnel from the building. This allowed security personnel to establish controlled perimeter around the site. Rescue workers were only allowed to re-enter the site after confirmation that there was no additional explosive devices in the area.

Immediately after the blast, the City’s Fire Department formed the Incident Command System (ICS) to manage the intensive search and rescue mission. The system managed influx of resources including federal, state, local, and voluntary personnel and equipment. The ICS was under the sole command of the Oklahoma City Fire Department. The City Police managed traffic and security of the area in coordination with the Oklahoma County Sheriff, federal, and state agencies.  


The Federal Investigations Bureau (FBI), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the American Red Cross, the US Marshalls, the Civil Air Patrol, and several other federal agencies supplemented the state and local departments in conducting search, rescue, investigations, recovery, and other emergency functions.

There are many reasons why the incident response strategies ran smoothly in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City Bombing (Oklahoma Department of Civil Emergency Management, 1996). First, Oklahoma City had a strong federal and government presence. Second, the state of Oklahoma City has an abundance of emergency resources. Third, the rescue operations were limited to a confined area. Fourth, destruction was limited to non-residential location of the city. Fifth, cooperation between the federal and state governments was commendable.  Strong leadership concerns were exhibited at all levels of government. Sixth, every individual involved in the response and recovery operation had a personal interest. They were victims. The state’s respect for its people inspired search and rescue activities.

There are many other reasons, as well. First responders demonstrated teamwork, responsiveness, and care. The American Red Cross and several other voluntary agencies responded immediately to the needs of affected persons. The National Weather Service provided timely and accurate forecasts of weather. Communication support from organizations such as Southwestern, Cellular One, and others were immense. Establishment of the Multi-Agency Communication Center ensured effective exchange of information between the state and federal agencies. Contrary to the experience of many agencies at the scene, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol communicated directly with personnel from federal agencies based in Oklahoma. These included the FBI, U.S. Marshal’s service, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol has a pre-determined plan for calls, with respect to compatible radios and systems. A technician from the department of Public Safety programmed radios within a time of 45 minutes. This facilitated the Mobile Command Posts to communicate on site effectively.  The Oklahoma Highway Patrol applied their trunking capability to assign to allocate different sub-fleets to different public safety agencies, but that depended on whether the agencies had 800MHz.trunking system radios.

The other source of success is that the Oklahoma City provided sufficient resources and space for the establishment of multi-agency coordination centers. In addition, security procedures were established quickly to limit access and entry into the incident area and Incident Command Post Area. Also, the Oklahoma City police had in place an emergency response team (ERT), which had been set up two years prior to the time of the incident. The resources at the site were sufficient. There were 47 ambulance services, 384 emergency medical personnel, and 103 ambulance units. This allowed allocation of functions effective. Some were asked to transport patients, others asked to take care of the routine calls while some were asked to provide back-up for communities. Others provide mutual assistance on tasks based on media appeals.

Success should also be traced to the use of the “Life Detector” equipment, a listening device effective in tracing persons trapped in the rubble. The rescue team would then use a bullhorn to instruct trapped victims to tap on steel or concrete, in order to be located. The other sophisticated technology that facilitated operations was the STOLS (System to Locate Survivors). This was a specialized camera system used to view ravages, in search of covered victims. The camera was inserted through cracks or bored holes to lengths up to 79 inches. The STOLS provided a view of a range of 180 degrees. The persons operating the device used headphones to hear within the crevice. It should also be recognized that the immediate response by the Oklahoma City Fire brigade, emergency medical personnel, and other emergency units contributed immensely to the positive outcome of the response.  Personnel and equipments became available immediately. The personnel were willing to perform every activity required for the search and rescue mission.

In the report of several official agencies, the city, state, and federal procedures used in response to this incident would become a model for future incident response processes. The aftermath of the Oklahoma City Bombing is a proof that Incident Command Systems work. Critical areas covered include communication, information and planning, transportation, resource support, fire-fighting, public information management, and the role of private and volunteer agencies, with respect to multi-agency response.

Although there is a lot of room for improvement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other crime scene responders managed crime scene and deployed resources while ensuring coordination among agencies present at the scene of the crime. The United States Attorney’s Office’s (USAO) response to critical incident requires responders to take steps to ensure that interviews are coordinated to avoid multiple agencies interviewing the same person (US Justice Department, 2000). It requires that responsible agencies establish crime scene protocols. Also, it requires that responders ensure that the crime scene is preserved and that overlapping relief shifts are set up to avoid fatigue. In relation to the Oklahoma City Bombing, missteps were observed in response strategies of FBI, as the crime scene managers. Crime scene protocols were not established effectively to ensure effective preservation of the crime scene (Ibid).

State and local agencies are required to develop plans for efficient transportation during occurrences of catastrophic disasters. This is to ensure the continuation of essential services performed by personnel from the federal, state, and local emergency response agencies. Several federal and state laws define roles played by different agencies and provides for continuity of operations. There are annexes and checklists essential in ensuring that the transportation functions of state and federal agencies is undertaken. The overall management structure must be put in place to support the implementation of state and federal laws that provide for continuity of services during the emergency situation. Relevant authorizes should ensure that a hierarchy of plans are establish to guide emergency response actions.

The fire companies also experienced an overwhelming emergency rescue operation. The fire and emergency response units closest to the location were at the Oklahoma City Fire Department Station. This is approximately five blocks away from the site. Emergency response personnel and equipments from the fire station were dispatched immediately to the site of the blast. The fire department’s chiefs were in a meeting at the time of explosion but responded immediately prompted by the sound of the blast. The chiefs went to their respective points of command. As the fire-fighting personnel and apparatus approached the scene, they encountered debris scattered all over the streets. The debris covered several blocks at the site of the explosion. Passages had to be cleared to create a way to the scene for the fire fighters and their equipment. In addition, the fire personnel encountered people fleeing the area.

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, the chaos resulting from the blast affected communications capabilities from the site of the explosion. Within the first 12-18 hours, standard and cellular phone lines were overloaded. It became extremely difficult to communicate by cell phone. Portable cellular sites were established at the site to ease the stress on mobile phone circuits. This made it possible to seize a circuit, greatly enhancing telephone communications. The problem is that non-emergency communications jammed standard phone lines, making coordination activities difficult. In the first critical period after the explosion, the two-way radio was the fastest and most efficient means to relay information and request particular support. In addition, the Oklahoma City Police Department stated that they switched their communications to a common police channel. This allowed them to communicate among themselves in a better way. Internal communication system brought a lot of improvements in communicating and monitoring activities of the City’s law enforcement units and response agencies.

In 1994, the AT&T formerly Cellular One acted as a catalyst for the establishment of the Oklahoma Disaster Preparedness Council, which included Oklahoma County, State, and Federal Agencies, media, and hospitals. Through the initiative of AT&T wireless services, a directory of key personnel and facilities was developed. Following the explosion, Cellular One reconfigured their trunking system, providing priority service to the personnel in their directory. In addition, there was confusion among personnel in terms of the identity of the cell phone ringing. Phones were ringing all over, making it difficult to know whose phone was ringing.

There was no state fire fighting mission for this disaster (Oklahoma Department of Civil Emergency Management, 1996). Search and rescue operations were performed by local and federal agencies without the support of the state fire agency.The actions of the Incident Command System (ICS) and Integrated Emergency Management System (IEMS) were distracted early during the event because of the heavy response of local, state, federal, and volunteer agencies. The other reason was the creation of three separate Incident Command Post locations immediately after the explosion. In addition, there was the deployment of several mobile command posts that represented support agencies. As a consequence, there was confusion between support agencies, which resulted in information delays because of the multiple chains through which requests had to pass through. In addition, officers visiting the Information Command Post had to check with at least four mobile command posts to obtain the overall status of the situation.

The reality was that the Information Command Post ran by the City Fire Department was only one. The Mobile Command Posts were created as forward operations units for their respective agencies. Although, media reports about the operations indicate that three levels of government performed a lot of activities, it should be recognized that Oklahoma City remained did a lion share of activities, in terms of search and rescue. Cooperation and effective participation of all levels of government was hampered by inappropriate planning of functions and chain of communication between governments. There was a lack of knowledge by the principal individuals and agencies about IEMS, emergency response and recovery planning and implementation, and management functions. This resulted in confusion and frustration among the different local, state, and federal agencies.

Personnel and equipment are the primary resources required for emergency management actions. They are contracted from the government agencies and private institutions. Their role is to serve the needs of the incident. However, there are resources that often come unsolicited. These are resources such as food, clothing, volunteers, and other donations, which are donated for the purpose of helping meet the needs of the victims. This classification of resources, however, was not observed at Oklahoma City. Personnel, rescue equipment, and donated goods arrived at the scene from all over the world. This caused trouble with the storage and management of these resources. The Oklahoma City did not have specified agency and personnel to handle resource planning. Instead, the City asked FEMA to take control of this function. There was no existent management system for donations. There was a lack of instruments for managing distribution of resources to locations of needs. The consequence was that resources were requested at short notice.

The Public Information Office of the City of Oklahoma established a formal daily briefing session at the request of the Federal Investigations Bureau (Buck, Trainor, & Aguirre, 2006). The routine briefings set the tone for inter-agency cooperation and allowed dissemination of information through the media to the public. In addition, the Public Information Officer for the Fire Department introduced daily media briefing session to be done twice a day. The purpose of these daily briefings was to provide the latest information about the rescue and recovery operations. On its part, the State Medical Examiner’s Office’s Operations Coordinator established two daily press briefing to provide information about the processing and identification of victims after their families. Revelation of the victims was done after notification of their families.

The effectiveness of the briefing sessions were measured continually by the media reports regarding the incident and response. The different levels of government also provided updates to the media. For instance, the governor and mayor provided information about the state and city respectively. The Fire Department Information Officer and Incident Commander gave information on search and rescue mission. The Chief of Police gave information about the City’s law enforcement procedures. The FBI gave information about the progress of investigation for federal law enforcement. On their part, State the Medical Examiner provided information on the processing and identification of victims. FEMA provided information on federal operations.

However, there are issues about public information that provided challenges. In relation to the Joint Information Center, operations were intense. From the beginning, reporters from local, national, and international news organizations engaged in activities to find information. This created confusion. Local media accepted and carried information on unconfirmed appeals for donations, requests for trained personnel and volunteers. They broadcasted information live as it came. This type of coverage brought hundreds of spontaneous donations and volunteers. In addition, volunteer, local, state, and federal agencies had a lot of work to do at the site of explosion, in terms of response and recovery. This made it difficult for the public information officers to conduct coordination of information.

The locations established for information coordination were many. However, after a couple of days, a Joint Information Center (JIC) was established to disseminate information to the media, answer questions, assist officials in scheduling print and broadcast media interviews. Members of the JIC include members from the Oklahoma county, state, and federal information officers. The Success of the JIC was in the creation of a joint information system that provided telephone and pager contact with all information sources. They made an effort to ensure that all persons were given sufficient and correct information on developing situations. This allowed public and media inquiries to be referred to the relevant sources for responses.

Role of Other Agencies

    1. The Red Cross
  1. Conclusions and RecommendationsReferences
    1. Conclusions
    2. Recommendations
      1. Crime Scene Management
      2. Communications
      3. Public Information
      4. Resource Support
      5. Information and Planning
      6. Transportation
      7. Volunteer and Private Agencies

In addition to the local, state, and federal emergency response and recovery agencies, many other agencies took part in the Oklahoma rescue and recovery operations. The Red Cross, the National Weather Service, and several Oklahoma State agencies including the Board of Medicolegal Investigations, the Department of Education, Department of Corrections, Health Department, the Department of Human Services, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, the Oklahoma Insurance Commission, and several other state agencies and departments played various roles during the emergency period. The work of all the agencies has fundamental lessons for the future multi-agency response to an emergency. However, for the purpose of this evaluation, the response of the American Red Cross is assessed to represent volunteer and private agencies. The assumption is that the lessons from the work of state and national agencies are reflected in the recommendations for multi-agency response, with respect to information and planning, communication, transportation, health and medical services, resource support and fire fighting.

The American Red Cross provided an immediate and sustained response to the emergency. The Oklahoma County Chapter of the Red Cross sent Disaster Action Team members to the scene within five minutes. They assisted in rescue efforts, mass care, triage, and first aid. Immediately after the arrival of the Disaster Action Team, the Emergency Response Vehicles reached the site of explosion providing food and drinks for rescuers and victims. On the first day, Red Cross Volunteers established a logistics center where they performed damage assessment, logistics, communications, disaster welfare inquiries, mass care, and health services. Red Cross ensured effective communication between government agencies and their organization. Representatives were sent to the Multi-Agency Coordination Center and the State Emergency Operations Center. The American Red Cross provided mental health services and established a recovery project where information, notification, and counseling were provided.

Similar to the government agencies, the Red Cross experienced communication and information-sharing challenges due to the long chain of command. Communication was disrupted by the overload experienced in cellular phone communication soon after the explosion. Information sharing was problematic owing to the fact that operations were in a variety of venues and locations. In addition, the registration of a large number of unauthorized personnel overwhelmed the Red Cross personnel.  

The Oklahoma terrorist bombing is a unique event in the history of the United States of America (Haddow & Bullock, 2010). The successes in the management of this even have been used very useful in the management of various emergencies by various agencies. Emergency response agencies review their procedures and plans based on reports of the Oklahoma disaster. The purpose of this review paper was to explore and provide an overview of the Oklahoma City Bombing, identify response actions taken, recognize operational strengths, and document important lessons for the future of disaster management. This is the basis for this research paper in documenting the actions taken and identifying what was done right and what was done wrong. Appropriate agencies and personnel can learn from problems observed and recommendations based on the observed problems.

Important lessons learnt from the Oklahoma experience are varied. First, the central United States is no longer immune to the reaction of political extremists of the east of west of the US. This means that critical incidents can occur in any location. Second, the Integrated Emergency Management System (IEMS) is effective when all functions are present. Third, the federal response plan should be modified to include missions and response activities of federal law enforcement agencies. Fourth, state and local plans should be in tandem with the federal and regional response plans. In addition, emergency support functions should be incorporated to match the state and local situation. Fifth, there is a need for a regional and national integrated training between local, state, and federal emergency management, law enforcement, and fire response services, in the management of terrorism incidents. Sixth, partnership between local, state, and federal agencies is essential for effective response and recovery actions.

According to the USAO’s principles for crime scene management, the FBI, which is in charge of the crime scene, must put in place protocols to preserve the location (US Justice Department, 2000). This should be done soon enough to prevent tampering of the crime scene by search and rescue workers as witnessed in the Oklahoma City Bombing, where masses stormed the building in search of victims without a particular order.

Emergency plans should be established and reviewed, and Agency Standard Operating Procedures developed. This is to facilitate the creation of an effective system of communication for emergency response actions. The model directory and Trunking of service should be embraced by telephone companies dominant in various cities.

Emergency operation plans for all states should be updated. There is a need to establish a joint local and state information system. Local officials should be consulted, in order to take into account their concerns and needs in setting up a joint information center on-site. This will help effective and efficient coordination and dissemination of information. Volunteer, local, state, federal, and private sector entities should be incorporated into the JIC whenever possible. Otherwise, digital pagers, cell phones, and radio communications should be purchased and delivered to media contact of each entity. In addition, the information disseminated should be brief and easy-to-comprehend. Also, Lists of disaster specialists should be provided to the JIC coordinator and government public affairs heads. A reserved team of state-trained public information volunteers should be created for future disaster response actions, including media monitoring and video documentation. This also requires purchase of relevant equipment.

Federal, state, and local disaster management agencies should develop and update equipment distribution system for emergency situations. Vital resources include protective clothing, relevant boots, hard hats, gloves, respirators, face protection, protective eyewear, back supports, and others necessary for effective emergency operations. In addition, a plan for donations management should be developed by states and shared to local government for the purpose of developing their plan.

In order to ensure that the Integrated Emergency Management System works, planning, training, and rehearsals should be implemented (Glenshaw, Vernick, Frattaroli, & Mallonee, 2008). The different levels of government should be on the same page. Relationships ought to be established. Plans should be established and tested. Procedures for emergency operations must be agreed upon by stakeholders. In addition, the Information Command Post should be established immediately, responsible to an identified local government. Incident Commander should request for resources from the local government through the Local Emergency Operations. Resources that are requested but cannot be met by the local government should be directed to the state through the State Emergency Operations Center. The same procedure should be followed by the state. The state should make a request for federal support through FEMA’s Regional Operations Center. Despite the variation in roles, the mission for all levels of government is the same. It is to provide effective and efficient response and recovery. This requires coordinated logistics, information, and communication support systems.

The primary role of transportation response is to control traffic and ensure access to the site of the incident (Haddow & Bullock, 2010). The aim is to facilitate evacuation of victims and flow f resources and personnel in and out of the incident location. In this respect, the local authorities responsible for transport should develop, test, and exercise plans for transportation management in times of disasters.

The American Red Cross should constantly upgrade communications equipment including hand-held radios essential for emergency management (Oklahoma Department of Civil Emergency Management, 1996). In anticipation of difficulties in communication, agencies should deploy representatives to designated areas of information sharing. The other issue observed from the activities of the American Red Cross was difficulty in registering and identifying volunteers. In line with the recommendation of the American Red Cross, private agencies should develop systems of registering and identifying unauthorized volunteers.

Buck, D.A., Trainor, J.E., & Aguirre, B.E. (2006), “A Critical Evaluation of the Incident Command System and NIMS”, Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, 3(3): 1

Donahue, A. & Tuohy, R. (2006), “Lessons we don’t learn”, Homeland Security Affairs, II (2):1-28

Glenshaw, M., Vernick, J., Frattaroli, S., & Mallonee, S. (2008), “Injury Perceptions of Bombing Survivors- Interviews from the Oklahoma City Bombing”, Prehospital and Disaster Medicine: 500-506

Haddow, G. & Bullock, J. (2010), “The Future of Emergency Management”, Washington, DC: Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management, George Washington University

Taley, T. (2006), “Experts fear the Oklahoma City Bombing Lessons forgotten”, Retrieved September 30, 2013, from the San Diego Union Tribune, http://legacy.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20060417/news_1n17okla.html

United States Department of Justice (2000), “Responding to terrorism Victims: Oklahoma City and Beyond, Washington, DC: Author

Oklahoma Department of Civil Emergency Management (1996), “After Action Report”, Oklahoma City, OK: Author

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