The United States faces many biological, chemical and radiological threats. For example, an industrial accident may leak toxic chlorine, a terrorist could release a dirty bomb or a new virus strain could escape a research laboratory. Regardless of the incident type there is one obvious commonality: First responders are the ones tasked with controlling the situation and safeguarding the community. So how can our nation’s first responders prepare for such threats?

Tom Ridge — former Pennsylvania governor and the first director of the Department of Homeland Security — gives tips on how first-responder agencies can protect themselves and their communities.

What are the greatest threats facing the United States?
The greatest national threat is a growing sense of complacency — and an eroding sense of urgency — to be mindful of the kind of world we are living in. The further we get away from 9/11, the more concerned I am. It’s not the emergency management professionals: the first responders, our fire chiefs, our police chiefs. It’s the general public who has become a bit more apathetic than we had hoped.

Concerning material threats the greatest concern I have is still the possibility of a radiological or chem-bio attack as a weapon of mass effect in terms of mass casualties.

How should first responders prepare for the aforementioned threats?
There is no substitute for training and exercises that include local government, individual citizens and the private sector. I do believe in the different kinds of exercises conducted — everything from the tabletop to the actual attempt to be as realistic on the streets of a particular community. I think accepting the notion that such an attack could occur, working with adjacent communities and creating a mutual-aid agreement are important because, frankly, communities are not all equipped the same way and don’t have the same equipment, capabilities and resources.

First responders need the collaboration and the cooperation of not only government leaders but also the corporate sector and individual citizens to participate in exercises. We can’t just put the burden exclusively on first responders. It is a community-wide responsibility. First responders and fire chiefs can be the catalysts. But we need communication, cooperation and collaboration with the community as well.

What types of technologies have you seen that can help first responders in the field?
Here’s where I think first responders need help from the private sector. I think there is a great need to use technology of detection that organizations can embed into their buildings, plants and facilities. The equipment will provide real-time information about the threat and that data can be transmitted immediately — if there is a concept of operations between the private sector that has this technology and the first-responder agency.

What role do interoperable communications play?
That’s a really sensitive point with me there. I am very disappointed that one of the most important recommendations from the 9/11 Commission Report, sanctioned by Congress, before which I testified and around which many great recommendations were made … that the very high priority they gave to a public-safety interoperable communications systems continues to be ignored.

Right now, we have patchwork, a piecemeal of technologies. At the end of the day, what this country needs, what the first responders deserve, what citizens should demand is that there’s a public safety broadband interoperable communication system built. … I can’t imagine that there’s one first responder who disagrees with me.

Readers also have expressed a need for a first-responder, interoperable communications system.
Here’s the irony of this. It’s not just about responding to a terrorist attack. There could be a horrible accident. There could be god-forbid another natural disaster. There could be a terrorist attack. There could be a major traffic accident involving hundreds of people. There could be a train wreck… . It would be so much better for this country as far as safety in general if we had a national broadband system for public safety. So I continue to be a strong advocate for it. And one of these days maybe Congress and the FCC will listen.

Has FEMA’s public-education campaign — a teaching system to prepare and protect their own well-beings during emergencies — been successful?
It’s like water dripping on a stone; it eventually will make an impression. We want individuals to take personal responsibility for their safety and welfare. There are certain regions where it’s embedded in their notion, for example in hurricane and tornado alley. So to prepare citizens, we initiated the campaign. We basically said to folks to prepare, plan and stay informed — very simple. FEMA just needs to continue to emphasis it, continue to maintain the visibility of the ready campaign. In time, I think we probably will see a modest increase in those who have prepared themselves for an emergency. But we still have a lot of work to do.