Lessons learned from Czech first responders exercise

The results of an exercise conducted in mid-April by the Czech Republic’s Integrated Rescue and Security Service (IRSS) indicate that the country’s police, firefighting and medical services are ill-prepared to cope with the aftermath of a terrorist attack or other mass casualty crisis.

The exercise was part of the Security Document of Buildings (Zones) being drawn up by a working group within the Ministry of Interior of the Czech Republic. The group comprised the Police Presidium, the General Directorate of the Firefighting Rescue Service (HSZ), and outsourced companies that provide support services.

The document consists of:

  • provisions for detailed cartography on a scale of 1:300;
  • IRSS tactical procedures;
  • the establishment of a fault tree; and
  • the establishment of a stastistical deviation function.
  • The scenario of the exercise, held during the night of 14-15 April, involved a suspected improvised explosive device in a building in Prague’s city centre. Between 80 and 100 police and firefighting personnel responded within the context of the exercise.

    Co-ordination between first responders proved to be a major problem. During the simulation, organisers determined that overall systemic co-ordination between the police and the firefighting services was poor. Co-ordination between the various police units involved was also inadequate. Furthermore, it was determined that communication between the various units responding to the threat was poor, as was overall preparation, despite efforts to brief all commanders whose units were scheduled to participate in the exercise.

    Exercise organisers noted that the force structure of the Czech police, which is divided into the local, district, regional, and national levels, makes it difficult to establish an satisfactory level of co-operation. According to Czech law, the police are responsible for establishing command and control if the authorities expect a bomb to be planted. Once an explosive device is discovered and detonated, authority over the situation is immediately transferred to the firefighting services (HSZ).

    Police unit commanders involved in the simulation had difficulty in establishing mobile command posts that are crucial in providing on-site command and control in a crisis situation. This in turn hampered efforts to seal off the built-up area once the dummy device was located.

    The inability to establish a number of mobile command posts means that unit commanders could be unable to seal off a given area adequately. Furthermore, the lack of command and control means that all civilians within an affected urban area might not be evacuated in time, thus creating the risk of additional casualties. Police commanders were also unable to establish a command staff.

    During the exercise, some police commanders who did arrive experienced difficulties in determining where to deploy their personnel.

    Communication problems

    An important shortcoming raised by the exercise was that communication equipment used by the Czech police and the HSZ does not operate on the same frequency, making co-ordination efforts within the IRSS extremely difficult.

    The interior ministry procured an expensive and highly sophisticated Matra communications system, including relay stations and man-portable police radios, in 2000 before the International Monetary Fund-World Bank Summit in Prague. The system, however, is still not fully operational and sources point out that its operators have yet to master its complexity. The HSZ operates an older communications system, which is not compatible with that used by the police and could lead to chaos during a large-scale emergency.

    The lack of compatible communication was best illustrated in August 2002, when the IRSS had to respond in full force to massive flooding that affected a large part of the Czech Republic. Poor communication between the police, the HSZ and the military resulted in badly organised efforts to rescue civilians. Rescue services, including helicopter-equipped aviation units, were redundant in some areas and critically lacking in others, placing civilian lives at extreme risk.

    During the training exercise in April, local HSZ commanders resorted to sitting next to police commanders and relaying instructions to their subordinates via two types of radios: in an age of modern communications this is unacceptable.

    Exercise organisers said that the only flawless example of police and HSZ co-operation featured police bomb squad specialists and firefighters, who have experience in responding to such emergencies. Members of the bomb squad and the HSZ rescue service are accustomed to working together when responding to bomb threats and their skills have become well co-ordinated through experience.

    Prague: a major target?

    The results of the exercise come as the Czech Republic, in particular Prague, is increasingly regarded by security experts as an attractive target for Islamist terrorist groups.

    On the international front the Czech Republic has provided open political support for the US-led international war on terrorism, specifically operations ‘Enduring Freedom’ in Afghanistan and ‘Iraqi Freedom’. Prague has committed military personnel, albeit in limited numbers, to Afghanistan and Iraq. Consequently it has exposed itself to Islamist extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda.

    Prague is also home to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is funded by the US government and broadcasts to a number of politically unstable countries in the Middle East, such as Iraq and Iran.

    Furthermore, following the collapse of communism the Czech Republic has become Europe’s strongest supporter of Israel in its continuing battle against Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas. Within Prague’s historic centre lies an old Jewish quarter that attracts tens of thousands of Jewish tourists from around the world.

    A number of intelligence officials have expressed growing concern that Prague could soon become the scene of a terrorist attack aimed at civilians. The IRSS does not seem to have the resources to deal with such an attack and considerable improvements are required to boost its effectiveness in this area.

    Jiri Kominek is the correspondent for Jane’s Information Group in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He is based in Prague

    Explore our related content