Preparing the Fire Service for Terrorism

  Osama Bin Laden is dead and the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is this month. The death of Bin Laden will not end the terrorist threat, and in the short term may actually increase it. The frontline duties at home in the war on terrorism are still one...


  Osama Bin Laden is dead and the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is this month. The death of Bin Laden will not end the terrorist threat, and in the short term may actually increase it. The frontline duties at home in the war on terrorism are still one of the responsibilities of America’s fire...


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Osama Bin Laden is dead and the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is this month. The death of Bin Laden will not end the terrorist threat, and in the short term may actually increase it. The frontline duties at home in the war on terrorism are still one of the responsibilities of America’s fire services. Communities have been attacked and/or threatened and hundreds of emergency personnel have been injured and murdered in this war.

Numerous guidelines have been produced at all levels of government concerning preparation, protection and recovery from terrorism, but how to make that coordinate with and work in the day-to-day operations of the fire service has been largely left to the services themselves. Today, 10 years after 9/11, there is little in the experience, organization, structure, training and response patterns of firefighters that prepare them for this role in counterterrorism. Even after the disasters of 9/11, not all emergency agencies have absorbed the lessons of that day. They have not all evaluated the work of their operational procedures to create response patterns that specifically address this changed and highly lethal counterterrorist operational environment.

Developing these operational changes requires a series of steps that need to be taken at the individual community and departmental levels in order for the fire service to adapt to the threat of terrorism. Failure to change can result in a lack of efficiency, loss of effectiveness, duplication of effort, unnecessary expenditure of funds and resources, loss of public confidence, increased danger to personnel and the loss of life and property.

Correcting this condition can be addressed through a process that modifies a department’s organization, planning, leadership, functioning, training and response patterns into one that understands the nature of the threat environment and the fact that the department is involved with war-fighting.

A Form of War

Terrorism is often referred to as “asymmetrical” warfare, meaning the terrorists’ forces, means and capabilities are dramatically out of balance with that of their enemy. Terrorists compensate by selecting targets and using tactics and weapons that give them an impact in excess of their size and resources.

Like armies, fire departments today are in a changed, terrorist (crisis) threat environment, but they often respond in traditional (routine) ways. Past wars have many examples of armies continuing to use traditional fighting methods in spite of new threats and weapons.

At the Civil War battle of Fredericksburg, Union commanders sent 15 attacks against a defended Confederate position. Each attempt was decimated (a crisis), but they kept repeating the (routine) tactic, which was the accepted response they had been trained in. Their failure was in thinking it impossible to change methods or to realize and adapt to the changed threat environment. In World War 1, the heavy loss of life in trench battles (a crisis) was changed by the introduction of the tank (a new response). If you consider conventional war as having routine conditions, and terrorism as having crisis conditions, these examples show the difference between routine and crisis preparation, thinking, recognition and response. To create better response patterns, fire departments must understand the nature of the terrorist threat and risk they face generally and to the responding firefighters specifically. This is done through a risk-assessment process. After an assessment, other efforts should review security, resources, crisis leadership, training and planning.

The Terrorist Environment

Firefighters responding from their firehouses are in danger even before getting to the scene of a terror attack. For example, there have been more than 10,000 attacks on responders worldwide since 1970, including Mumbai, India, where the terrorists attacked responders while they were enroute from their headquarters, killing several of them. They never made it to the scene of the main terror target. The commanding chief of the Anti-Terrorist Squad was killed in this way, causing confusion and delay among his forces.

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