The March terrorist bombing of Madrid’s subway system lent fresh urgency to efforts this spring to establish a practical, national system to facilitate participation of union contractors, Laborers and other skilled trades in emergency responses to terrorist attacks in the United States.

“Not to be alarmist,” says LIUNA Vice President and Northwest Regional Manager Mano Frey, who has monitored a series of planning meetings, “but it would be foolish not to plan for the possibility of another attack. The heroism and sacrifice of the first responders at the World Trade Center was exemplary, but there were some problems. We can be better prepared.”

What were the problems? “It was nothing major,” says Washington State Associated General Contractors (AGC) Safety Director John Carlson, “but, behind the scenes, we had some turf wars between the fire services and the skilled trades. Obviously, fire fighters know how to manage a disaster scene and need to be in charge, but they don’t know everything. For instance, they don’t know how to operate cranes or how to direct those operations from the ground level. Incident command – between fire fighters and skilled trades – is a significant area of concern.”

Training and certification is another concern. In a disaster, it is difficult to check to see whether all responders have the necessary knowledge and skills to work safely with others on the scene. “We need a system that allows easy, on-the-scene verification of companies and employees with the proper training and certification to handle an emergency situation,” says Tri-Fund Field Coordinator Doug Buman who, along with Carlson, is participating in the planning sessions.

The third concern is legal liability. “The problem is during the first hours of the crisis,” says Carlson. “In an emergency, the first priority is to save lives, and decisions may be made that, later, are the cause of legal action. Who is liable in that situation? To what extent? What kind of legal protection or insurance coverage is warranted?”

After noting last fall that Seattle is among the top seven U.S. cities at risk of a terrorist attack, Seattle Assistant Fire Chief A. D. Vickery initiated a dialogue with the U.S. Office of Domestic Preparedness to address first response issues. As a result, a national First Response and the Skilled Trades (FIRST) Program Stakeholder Summit was convened in Seattle. According to the meeting’s executive summary, the summit “brought together key representatives from federal, state and local agencies and the skilled trades to develop methods for the successful integration of skilled trades personnel into incident command at a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) terrorism incident site.” Follow-up meetings took place this spring. So far, however, no definite decisions have been made.

“If nothing else,” says Carlson, “Vickery’s effort has kicked the whole discussion into high gear. My biggest concern is that we may over think the problem. The unions, particularly the Laborers, already have extensive training programs that cover 90 percent of what is needed to step into one of these emergencies. Some things need more emphasis – incident command, bloodborne pathogens, crime scene evidence. But a contractor who works union is already well-prepared. We can ID regions of the country without strong union presence and check the local training programs. We can fill gaps in the HAZMAT classes. OSHA needs to recognize these approved programs. The danger is going overboard, getting hung up on creating a new, separate training program and trying to have a national certification card. Local cards are fine.”

Carlson anticipates that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will make a training recommendation based on its 500 Class. “That class covers the broad range of dangers on worksites,” says LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Division Director Scott Schneider. “However, unions already cover that in even more detail in a variety of specific classes.” Schneider, who – along with staff at the Laborers-AGC – is involved with OSHA in developing other WMD curricula, believes a better starting place is the hazardous materials training programs conducted by other unions (40-hour courses) and the Laborers (an 80-hour course).

[Steve Clark]