How will Chicago’s police and firefighters handle a terrorist attack?
It was the question top safety officials began to tackle Tuesday morning at a counterterrorism workshop at McCormick Place.
A mock terrorist attack played out on paper: active shooters, improvised explosive devices, multiple hostage situations and 450 casualties.
The timing of the two-day workshop — four days after the terrorist attacks in Paris — was eerie, but a coincidence. It has been in the works for six months, officials said Tuesday.
Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, in opening remarks before nearly 200 law enforcement and safety officials from an alphabet soup of local, state and federal agencies, discussed the need to reexamine a knee-jerk reaction to send all first responders to the scene of a terrorist attack.
“In the past everybody wants to run to the scene,” he said. “But as we just saw last weekend, multiple attacks by multiple teams has it that everybody has to stay in their lane, everybody has to ‘play zone’ if you will, because if something happens in one area, it doesn’t mean that it’s not going to happen in another area in a few minutes — and everybody just can’t run to the scene.”
Frontline decision making is essential, he said.
“Very serious calls are going to be made by first-line supervisors. We need our people in the field to take control of what’s happening. That’s kind of a change of strategy,” said McCarthy.
“I think the nature of hostage situations has also changed, because [the Paris gunmen] took hostages, but what were they doing? They were killing them. So we can’t use those tactics that we’ve used in the past where we surround, contain, talk, try and negotiate. We’re going to be in a combat situation if these things happen and we have to adjust our strategies in that way.”
Other agency heads also spoke, including Chicago Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago, who said police and firefighters are currently training together on active shooter situations.
“It is going to be the first responders, the city of Chicago’s firefighters, policemen and OEMC [Office of Emergency Management and Communications] — we are going to be alone when it happens, that’s a fact. It’s going to happen,” Santiago said.
Garry Schenkel, OEMC executive director, said “the value of these [workshops] is that when the stuff hits the fan, we’re not meeting each other for the first time that day.”
Todd M. Carroll, FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge, said the workshop “will give us all the opportunity to be exposed to lessons learned from other tragedies.”
Officials also spoke of a flexible enemy and the need to be able to not only quickly modify their plans on the fly, but actually stay ahead of their plans.
“We’re dealing with an adaptive enemy, somebody who spends all their time trying to figure out how we’re going to react and be better than us when they come,” said Timothy Manning, who serves as Deputy Administrator for Protection and National Preparedness at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“So it’s our jobs to train harder, to exercise harder, to plan harder, learn from what they’re doing and be better than them when they show up,” he said.
In opening remarks, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said it was important for the public have confidence in the city’s preparation for such an event.
“I think this is essential to reassure the public, first and foremost, we’re on task, on the job, doing the work that’s necessary,” he said.
Emanuel reiterated: “There is no viable threat on the city of Chicago.”
He also noted that the attacks in Paris “are a reminder that our freedoms — while essential and eternal — are fragile.”
The Joint Counterterrorism Awareness Workshops were spurred by a series of terrorist attack that occurred in Mumbai seven years ago this month; 166 people were killed.