The Nassau County Police Department soon will begin training the county’s 10,000 volunteer firefighters to work more effectively with law enforcement in the event of terrorist attacks, active shooter incidents and other mass casualty emergencies.
The move was in response to concerns raised by fire officials since the police department encrypted its radio transmissions four years ago, preventing anyone — including fire officials — from listening in, said Nassau police Chief of Department Steven Skrynecki, who added the frequency of active shooter scenarios across the country recently also was a big concern.
The new training to be rolled out this fall in Nassau includes directions on what unarmed fire and EMS personnel should do if they were to encounter someone with a gun or other deadly weapon. And some instructions run contrary to what firefighters are trained to do: Run toward danger.
“It’s about coordination of resources, it’s about working together to make sure we’re all on the same page, basically all playing the same song, on the same sheet of music,” said Nassau acting Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter.
While Nassau police have argued that concealing their internal communications from outside ears is key to officer safety — especially during a terrorist attack or mass shooting, when an assailant could benefit from listening to officers’ tactical moves — fire officials have fretted over their own safety for not being privy in real-time to police actions, officials said.
Raymond Maguire, a Freeport fire official and the director of the Nassau County Vocational Education and Extension Board, said while not being able to constantly listen to police radio transmissions is “definitely a barrier,” firefighters are hungry for training.
“Their concern is to have a plan . . . what is the plan going to be?” Maguire said. “And it’s very important that the Freeport fire department, where I’m from, is on the same plan as the Bayville fire department, or the Farmingdale fire department.”
At a recent introductory training of 200 volunteer firefighters at Adelphi University in Garden City, Skrynecki told the participants that he understood their concerns.
“It’s been bothering me, that we haven’t had the kind of cooperation that I think we need, the kind of cohesive training with the fire departments that we need,” he told them. “The way we operate most of the time, we get together, we put our training to use and we make it work. . . . But I think a meeting like this, where we stop and pause a little bit and really think about the elements that really go into a good unified command, will really help to make this smooth and seamless.”
The Nassau plan
To improve communications, Nassau police have given two radios to each of the county’s 71 fire departments in the past few months, but the department wanted to create a policy that would formalize interaction between police, fire and emergency medical personnel in the event of a mass casualty attack at a school, shopping center or other large-scale gathering place in an effort to ensure firefighters’ safety and the best emergency care for injured victims, Skrynecki said.
“Avalanche, avalanche, avalanche” is the call that the first responders are being instructed to say over their radios, a signal for others to evacuate the area of conflict immediately. The “mayday” call typically used by firefighters would signal firefighters to rush into a building, said Skrynecki, adding: “If we got on the radio and said, “mayday, mayday, mayday,” what happens? Everybody’s coming to the party, right? Everybody’s rushing in. This is to turn everyone around.”
Also key is the police directive to run first, or try to hide, when confronted with an active shooter. As a last option, firefighters are advised to fight using whatever tools they have.
Nassau police also have instituted new protocols within its Communications Bureau to notify the county Fire Communications Center and the fire department with jurisdiction in the case of an active shooter, Skrynecki said. The police communications bureau will push police radio transmissions on an incident to the Fire Communications Center to provide real-time updates. And the fire department’s chief or designee will be invited to the police command post so that there is constant communication, he said.
“Your department will be made aware,” Skrynecki told the firefighters. “That doesn’t necessarily mean we want you to respond. . . . It might turn out that we never need the department.”
Fills a critical need
During superstorm Sandy, for example, Nassau police positioned a runner between its police communications bureau and its 911 call center — conveniently located in the same building in Westbury — to coordinate efforts.
Firefighters have long faced dangers other than smoke and flames when responding to emergencies. In March 2011, Justin Angell, a volunteer Bellmore firefighter, was shot and wounded when he responded to a car crash. Nassau police killed the shooter at the scene.
One of the deadliest days for firefighters was Sept. 11, 2001, when 343 members of the FDNY died responding to the Twin Towers. Equipment failures and incompatible radios that prevented communication between police and fire were blamed for the high number of firefighter fatalities, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, which detailed how many firefighters never got the message to evacuate the towers.
The number of reported threats of mass violence in Nassau County has fluctuated in recent years. In 2012, there were just three incidents investigated for potentially making a terroristic threat, a number that climbed to 11 the following year, according to police department statistics. In 2014, that number jumped to 22, and then decreased to nine in 2015, statistics show. So far in 2016, there have been 14 threats of violence.
Suffolk has its own protocol
In Suffolk County, the police began a similar training process in 2013 and have conducted active shooter drills — including two last year — involving fire and EMS personnel to practice rendering aid to and evacuating grievously wounded victims, said Chief of Department Stuart Cameron.
Suffolk’s efforts have centered on training firefighters in the county’s 109 volunteer departments on a model that largely keeps firefighters and EMS personnel out of active scenes, by using the police department’s Medical Crisis Action Team of highly trained officers with EMT certification, Cameron said. Each are issued tourniquets and gauze packs to help stop bleeding.
“I wouldn’t want to send any of my police officers into a house to fight a fire,” Cameron said. “We can’t assure the fire department that it’s safer to come in there with us, so we want to bring the patient to them in a less hazardous zone.”
Suffolk doesn’t face one of Nassau’s obstacles because its police communications are not encrypted. Cameron said the open communication is “part of transparency.” The police department does have the ability in some instances to switch to a special channel that can’t be heard publicly, he said. “There’s nothing to hide,” Cameron said.
In Nassau, Krumpter said although its police radios are encrypted, the department has the ability to communicate privately with firefighters through their radio systems. Krumpter also stressed that the aim of the new training is to prevent firefighters from becoming victims of an active shooter. He said the training won’t cost the county any money because the trainers aren’t getting overtime and Adelphi provided the venue free of charge.
Maguire said volunteer firefighters are passionate about their mission and the new training.
“They wouldn’t be getting out of bed at 3 o’clock in the morning for no pay if they weren’t passionate about what they do,” Maguire said. “So because of that passion, they always want more. They always want to be better.”