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Agencies must plan for emergency situations, Northampton chief says

Northampton’s police chief said the methodical work done by law enforcement in the hunt for alleged marathon bomber Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev is the result of years of training and drills conducted nationwide since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Northampton Police Chief Russell P. Sienkiewicz said all levels of first-responders, from part-time EMS workers up through commanders of SWAT units, receive training to better understand their roles when responding to emergencies and disasters.

The most important element in those responses is the immediate establishment of a central communications center where all coordination of movements and planning takes place.

“It’s all a very methodical plan to stage resources,” Sienkiewicz said.

It’s not just presumed terrorist attacks that trigger such responses, Sienkiewicz said.

He said that events like the Springfield tornado in June 2011 and the devastation and flooding from Superstorm Sandy last October were approached by first-responders in the same way.

While there are independent teams assigned to specific tasks, they all work under the umbrella of the command post, Sienkiewicz said.

Training in how to respond to hazards became mandatory for first-responders two or three years after 9/11, Sienkiewicz said.

Each event is handled differently depending on whether it’s a natural disaster, industrial accident, mass shooting, terror attack or some other emergency.

But all begin with the same organizational framework and proceed once the immediate needs are established, Sienkiewicz said.

Some of those needs involve delegating responsibilities among area hospitals to decide what types of injuries are going to be treated where — and how to most efficiently transport patients, he said.

The response scenarios are based on drills performed by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in order to be as prepared as possible when disaster strikes, Sienkiewicz said.

If there were an event at the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus that required an emergency response, Sienkiewicz said, evacuation routes and a response plan would already be in place, saving precious minutes and hours and eliminating confusion that would likely result from having to develop a plan on the spot.

The drills and training are the result of information gleaned from other large-scale emergencies and evaluating what worked and what didn’t, Sienkiewicz said.

“In every large-scale event there’s lessons learned,” Sienkiewicz said, adding the responses to the Boston attacks are a perfect example of that.

He said there some frustration among officials as first-response agencies see their budgets cut.

“We need funding and support to develop these programs,” Sienkiewicz said. “Sinking money into communications is not a luxury.”

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.

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