House committee examines critical role of first responders

The House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing on Wednesday about first responders and the lessons the U.S. can learn from past terrorist attacks.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the committee, delivered the opening statement for the hearing, which was called, "The Critical Role of First Responders: Sharing Lessons Learned from Past Attacks." McCaul said the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks forever changed the role of first responders.

"Since that day, these brave men and women have been the first on the scene during the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, among others," McCaul said. "These tragic events remind us of the critical role first responders play in the nation's ability to react quickly, whether it be to a terrorist attack or natural disaster. Lessons learned from previous efforts are vital to increasing our ability to prepare for and respond to future incidents."

McCaul said the committee must do all it can to ensure first responders are properly prepared for whatever disasters they encounter by providing the proper capabilities, training and tools.

James Hooley, the chief of Boston Emergency Medical Services, said there were things first responders and the city did well during the Boston Marathon attacks and things they could improve upon. Hooley said joint training exercises, interagency pre-event planning and the implementation of DHS grants were among Boston's preparedness successes.

"I would also ask Congress to continue support to the (Urban Areas Security Initiative) program as it has proven value," Hooley said. "Recognizing that disasters do happen, as much as we try to protect against them, it is imperative that homeland security be inclusive of EMS and the broader health care community."

John Miller, the deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism for the New York City Police Department, thanked the committee, Congress and the DHS for supporting the city's counterterrorism grant funding, which he said has helped his department keep the city and its citizens safe.

"It takes additional resources, specialized equipment, and more money to police events that used to simply require police personnel for crowd and traffic control," Miller said. "Whether it is the Israeli Day Parade, the Super Bowl Boulevard events in Times Square this past February, or the New York City Marathon, each plan comes with a complex counterterrorism overlay that requires additional equipment, officers and investigators. We deploy specialized equipment from radiation detection pagers to detect a dispersal device attack to a portable network of cameras to scan the crowds."

Brian Jackson, the director of the RAND Corporation's Safety and Justice Program, said Congress must effectively support local first responders because they will be the first on the scene during disasters and terrorist attacks.

"Congress, through its oversight role, can contribute to strengthening both the efficiency and effectiveness of the national preparedness system by continuing to support and to encourage agency programs focused on improved preparedness measurement and evaluation, increasing focus on improving the value and effectiveness of preparedness exercises, and supporting ongoing efforts to improve protection of responders at large-scale response operations," Jackson said.