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Providing fast and open communication is a crucial component of law enforcement's role in any emergency situation, particular natural disasters in which the circumstances of the danger can change rapidly and seemingly without warning.
In fact, most emergency management situations will require fast responses from law enforcement personnel and agencies. A HAZMAT situation is one such example, in which it is crucial that individual members of the law enforcement agency are well-trained in how to respond to the presence of a hazardous material in order to limit the damage or threat to public safety that such an incident can cause. Though the track record of the transportation industry is excellent, it is a simple fact that accidents with hazardous materials will occur. The primary role of law enforcement in a situation like this is to operate at the first-responder and awareness level of management (Donahue, 1993).
Law enforcement agencies must be able to first correctly identify a HAZMAT threat and then have the knowledge or training to initiate the correct emergency response. This will usually involve notifying the correct emergency agency that is equipped to deal with the type of hazardous material involved at the incident. This role demands the ability of law enforcement personnel to recognize a HAZMAT danger when faced with one, be able to notify the appropriate personnel, and also protect the public by limiting their exposure to the danger (Donahue, 1993). In fact, this last role is an important component of almost all of law enforcement's involvement with emergency management situations. In the case of a HAZMAT incident, it may well fall to the fire department to collect and dispose of the dangerous materials, but it will be the responsibility of law enforcement to cordon off the exposed area, provide assistance to those exposed to the danger, keep back a curious public, and potentially enact evacuation procedures if the HAZMAT danger is perceived to be extensive. From this we can take that one of the key roles of law enforcement in an emergency management situation is to protect the public from any existing or potential danger.
Threats to the public can be quite more extensive, though, than HAZMAT incidents. Law enforcement's role to protect the public during an emergency must be tailored to the specifics of the emergency, but often means dealing with large groups of panicked people. This is why law enforcement perceives one of its most important roles in emergency management as prevention. If an emergency situation can be prevented before it occurs through the strategic deployment of resources, then this is perhaps the most effective type of emergency management available. Obviously, this cannot apply to every emergency situation. There is no law enforcement strategy that can prevent hurricanes or earthquakes. However, in some instances -- such as in situations where large groups of people congregate -- preventative emergency management can be quite effective.
Nearly all conventions, major sporting events, and political events work with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in order to provide for the security and civility of the event in question. Sometimes this involves increasing patrols in the area or providing background checks for event coordinators (North-Puma, 2003). In places that can be threatened by terrorists or criminals, like schools and universities, law enforcement agencies provide preventative security measures in order to limit the possibility of an emergency occurring in the first place. These measures can include providing better security like cameras, identification, and electronic access to sensitive areas. The challenges for law enforcement in any situation involving large groups of the public are extensive. They include dealing with injuries, managing confusion and panic, providing for dislocated people, as well as the normal kinds of infrastructure and HAZMAT damages that can occur in an emergency situation (Fickes, 2002).
Not surprisingly, it can be difficult to accomplish these goals in a preventative fashion. While the primary law enforcement role in an emergency is to prevent the emergency from occurring in the first place, the reality is that this cannot always be accomplished (Hiller, 1994). Barring the prevention of the emergency -- be it a terrorist attack, a bomb threat, civil unrest, or any other emergency situation -- the role of law enforcement changes somewhat. In the event that an emergency management situation does occur, it the role of law enforcement to reduce injuries and death, to deal with the immediate aftermath of the incident, to preserve and investigate the crime scene if applicable, and finally aid in the recovery process (Hiller, 1994). Since these goals will be shared with other emergency personnel, again we see the reality that communication and cooperation between agencies is crucial to the success of any emergency management efforts. In many situations -- such as a bomb threat at a university, a mass shooting, or rioting -- it will be the primary role of law enforcement agencies to provide security and aid to other emergency personnel so that they can help improve the situation (Vernon, 2006). It would be grossly irresponsible of law enforcement agencies to presume that they can fully handle an emergency situation without the aid of other agencies like EMS to provide medical attention to the injured or firefighters to control blazes and deal with hazardous materials. Law enforcement agencies simply are not equipped or trained to deal with every aspect of an emergency management situation.
Consequently, an important role of law enforcement will be to provide specialized support and aid to other emergency workers such as security. Interagency cooperation and communication is consequently a critical aspect of law enforcement's role in an emergency situation (Vernon, 2006). Neglecting to share information, whether purposefully or by omission, can cost the lives of other emergency personnel who would be working the same emergency as law enforcement agencies. Rivalries and interagency conflicts will have little positive effect in an emergency management situation and should be avoided at all costs to better protect the public from the danger posed and limit further damage to people and infrastructure. It is important that not only communication lines be established between emergency agencies and law enforcement but also between law enforcement and the community such that the latter can be appropriately advised of the developing situation in order to limit panic and aid in the orderly resolution of the emergency (Rothery, 2005).
Two new emergency management threats that have become more pressing in recent years include the threat of terrorism and the threat of widespread health emergencies. Since the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States, law enforcement agencies have been increasingly concerned about the potential for terrorist activities against sensitive locations, how best to prevent such events, and how to manage the aftermath should they occur. In large cities, significant funding is available to mitigate the risk of terrorism, though in many ways it can be difficult to provide adequate safeguards in such densely populated regions. Nonetheless, places like New York City actually have the resources to send investigators to foreign countries in order to produce intelligence information that can be used to prevent future attacks (Rashbaum and O'Donnell, 2004).
In smaller, rural communities the situation is somewhat different. While the role of law enforcement does not change in these places -- it is still to prevent first and then manage second -- the resources available to local law enforcement agencies in smaller communities is significantly lessened despite the fact that many sensitive sites are located in those regions. Critical infrastructure, military installations, chemical stockpiles, and power plants often are positioned in rural and small communities, making these places particularly attractive targets for terrorists (Law enforcement's concerns, 2004). The primary concern of law enforcement agencies in these locales is to be given more training in responses to chemical and biological attacks and to create better avenues of communication and cooperation with other emergency responders. Thus, again, we see that the role of law enforcement in an emergency management situation involving terrorism would be to work to prevent an incident in the first place followed by developing the resources to effectively protect the public and manage the situation effectively and quickly with the aid of other emergency agencies.
Another increasingly common emergency fear is that of a major public health incident. The possibility of a widespread flu pandemic is increasingly real, an emergency that would require specific roles to be enacted by law enforcement agencies. In addition to coordination with local and regional health officials, law enforcement agencies would be required to enforce quarantines, transport the sick, ground travelers, secure perimeters, protect health care facilities, and protect stockpiles of medicines and vaccines (Richards et al., 2006; Kirby, 2007). Worse, in a truly widespread health emergency it is very likely that the resources available to law enforcement, particularly in terms of available personnel, would be limited by any illness. Thus, law enforcement agencies would have to increase their role in providing public safety and preventing civil unrest on top…[continue]
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