Author’s Note: On 2 April 1722, The New England Courant, one of three established Boston newspapers, published a letter from a minister’s widow – Mrs. Silence Dogood. Every fortnight or so thereafter, or so the story goes, another letter from Mrs. Dogood appeared.

These short Epistles, filled with sharp observations and comments, addressed such universal topics as romance and love, but also delved into politics, Harvard University (a favorite target of Mrs. Dogood), and discussed the general state of affairs throughout Colonial America.

After six months, Silence Dogood fell inexplicably silent. James Franklin, publisher of the Courant, could offer no explanation as to why she stopped writing. When her identity was finally revealed, the citizens of Boston were amused (most if not all of them) to learn that Silence Dogood was not really a middle-aged widow. She was, in fact, James Franklin’s 16-year-old brother Benjamin, writing under the first of his many pseudonyms.

The brothers parted ways over the stunt, and not too long after that Benjamin Franklin left his native city of Boston for Philadelphia, which now claims him as its own.  

Oddly enough, Silence Dogood seems to have resurfaced, and is still writing letters – but in a more modern spirit, and on more modern topics. Following is one found posted on an all-hands bulletin board at a local fire station. 

Dearest Firefighter: I have been without a tempting muse for quite some time. For many nights, I lay languishing by my hearth, watching your noble profession struggle with weighty issues like terrorism and domestic preparedness, and pondering my return to the quill. (Actually, my quill is now an iMac and I don’t really have a hearth – those comments were just to get your attention. For the record, I also am not the widow of a minister.)

Having said that, let me offer some ladylike (I hope) observations about terrorism and a few ways it has been impacting the fire service. First, the entire nation was rudely awakened on September 11th 2001, which pretty much changed the way we all think and live.

It was a horrible day and I don’t think the wound has even yet started to heal – the fire service particularly. Overnight, from the largest metropolitan fire department to the smallest rural fire district, people were starting to talk about things like weapons of mass destruction, terrorism – which has always been with us, but not on such a large scale – and what is now called domestic preparedness. The Minutemen, of course, knew a lot about that particular subject.

Vendors – we used to call them cobblers or candlestick makers – are bringing antiterrorism types of products to market at a head-spinning rate, and it’s hard to keep up with all of the latest and greatest gadgets. We are starting to have so many choices, in fact, it becomes difficult to choose anything for fear it will be wrong or antiquated.  

Also, down at the market or on the city commons there are always discussions going on about how a particular federal regulation is changing the way we live or work, or a new technology is “emerging” (whatever that means), and people don’t want to invest in the wrong piece of equipment.

The only thing worse than having no gear at all, it seems, is having the wrong gear and trying to make it do something it wasn’t designed to do. So the real challenge – another word used (quite too frequently, methinks) by writers and politicians – lies not in finding the best piece of equipment but in deciding which particular piece is the best fit for our own fire service, and making the right decision is no small feat.

Fire agencies across the country are struggling with so many issues related to terrorism. Planning, training, funding, and response – to name just four – while at the same time trying to continue day-to-day operations. Some departments have taken the easy way out by sticking their heads in the sand and following an “it can’t happen here” attitude.

Others have faced up to reality, put terrorism issues on the front burner, and are going full speed ahead with preparations. There are, of course, many levels in between. Only one thing is certain: these are tough times for the fire service.  The general public expects us to be all knowing, ever vigilant, and ready to handle anything that happens – even when money is short and there aren’t enough people around to do all the work expected of us.

All in all, though, I think we really are a bit better prepared today than we were just a few years ago. What does that really mean, though: being “prepared?”  Will any fire department, anywhere in the world, ever reach the point where its people will say, and honestly believe, they are truly ready to handle a nasty terrorist attack? Or, for that matter, an attack by Mother Nature – who can be rather nasty at times.

Will there ever be a time when the Fire Chief sits down with his deputies, pours another cup of coffee, and says, “Yep, that’s it. We are now prepared?” Part of the problem is that it is just not possible to plan for everything that is likely to happen, much less everything that might happen.

Really, who – in any profession, any walk of life – knows what will happen next? Even if we somehow do know what to expect in terms of a terrorist event, it will still be chaotic when it does happen, people are likely to be killed or injured, and the onlookers and reporters will second-guess everything we do. It’s really a no-win situation for firefighters today and for everyone else in the same general line of work – fighting terrorism, in other words.

In the long run, I think preparations are going to boil down to this: We will respond to whatever happens, use whatever tools and equipment we have, and do our very best to handle what will certainly be a terrible situation.

Part of the challenge (there’s that word again) of getting prepared, and one that we bring upon ourselves in many cases, is that we don’t talk to one another as often as we should. The whole idea of working together – actually being interoperable (another fine word – is just not accepted everywhere.

You personally may be working in an area where the policemen and firemen and hospitals and everyone else is on the same page, but I guarantee that that is not the case in all parts of the country. If you do have that luxury, though, where the kingdoms have been dissolved, and the response borders are not as impenetrable as the Great Wall of China, you should consider it an anomaly.

Even so, this much is certain: If you don’t interact now with everyone around you who is working in the same general field, don’t expect wonderful open-armed cooperation when the situation is going to h___ in a hand basket. Believe it or not, there still are many places in this country where a house just a few blocks from a firehouse will burn to the ground because one jurisdiction won’t call in the neighboring one for assistance. If that kind of mentality still exists, how in the world will we ever work together in a big-time disaster?  (Actually, we undoubtedly will work together – there is no choice; we simply have to – but our combined efforts won’t be nearly as effective as they should be. And can be.)  

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to genuine interoperability is communications. It always is. I personally cannot think of any large-scale incident or drill, whether or not multiple agencies were involved, that did not have “communications” at the top of the list of the problems encountered. Again, there are still many areas of the country where one fire department cannot, or simply will not, talk on the same radio frequency as the department in the next town away.

The real problem, though, is not just the hardware, it’s the people using the hardware. Or not using it, or not using it correctly. Unfortunately, people still have attitudes and biases.

Another thing to remember is that there are good leaders and bad ones. Some people are relatively comfortable managing the chaos that comes along with any type of emergency, and will handle a multi-casualty terrorism incident with the same calmness and confidence they show at a simple two-alarm fire.

Unfortunately, the human element- what is called the “software” part of communications-will always be intangible. The trick is to get everyone talking together to figure out what “being prepared” really means. If you haven’t done so already, start the outreach process now– send a few emails, invite all of the key players in the region to a big meeting, and be sure to have some hot coffee available, and maybe a few goodies to eat.

Even if nothing substantial gets done at that first meeting, each guy there has at least seen the other guy’s face, and probably talked to him a little. That alone could help get things rolling. When it comes to domestic preparedness, in other words, silence is not golden!

Your Humble Servant,
Silence Dogood

Rob Schnepp

Rob Schnepp is division chief of special operations (ret.) for Alameda County (CA) Fire Department. His incident response career spans 30 years as a special operations fire chief, incident commander, consultant, and published author. He commanded numerous large-scale emergencies for the Alameda County (CA) Fire Department, protecting 500 square miles and two national laboratories in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. He twice planned and directed Red Command at Urban Shield, the largest Homeland Security exercise in the United States. He served on the curriculum development team and instructed Special Operations Program Management at the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Academy. He is the author of “Hazardous Materials: Awareness and Operations.” He has developed risk assessment, incident management, and incident command training for Fortune 500 companies, foreign governments, and U.S. national laboratories.

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