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The recent bombing of an abortion clinic in an Atlanta suburb has sent a warning to law enforcement and the fire service that domestic terrorism may be escalating to a new and more dangerous level for emergency personnel. This is the first time that a terrorist has planted a secondary device in the United States and it's clear that police, federal investigators and firefighters were the targets. Experts in the field warn that every fire department has to rethink its planning and training for this type of incident and realize that a bombing scene is a combat zone.
Only two months ago, this column suggested that the fire-rescue service had to take a more urgent and comprehensive approach to the problem of terrorism. We pointed out that firefighters and police could become the targets in terrorist attacks as they have in other countries. Now, it's no longer a theory; the nightmare has become a reality.
Here's what happened in Fulton County, GA: A well-made and powerful dynamite bomb exploded in the front of a building that housed an abortion clinic and other offices. An hour later while police, federal investigators, firefighters and the news media were routinely doing their work in and around the structure a second bomb exploded at the rear of the building. It had been planted near a dumpster and was an anti-personnel device, loaded with nails and shrapnel. Fulton County Fire Chief R.T. Strong reports that his crews had completed an inside search for a secondary device and were in the process of picking up when the second explosion occurred. Had it not been for two parked cars absorbing the main force of the blast, there would have been many injuries and fatalities.
"Whoever did this intended to draw us in and injure fire and police personnel," says an investigator for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). Worse yet, he adds: "They knew how to handle explosives and how we work. They turned our habits against us." While the abortion clinic appears to have been the bomber's objective, investigators also are exploring the possibility that it was a setup for the attack on law enforcement and fire-rescue personnel as primary targets.
Garry Briese, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), declares: "This is a lesson the fire service has to pay attention to...We have to re-examine how and where we locate our command posts, triage and staging areas. We've got to treat the bomb scene as a combat zone and expose the fewest number of firefighters to danger...The lessons of this incident have to be implemented without delay."
But what are firefighters supposed to do when people are trapped? Obviously, they can't stand around and do nothing. One idea is to take the hazmat approach: Stage the companies in a safe zone, then send in small, specially trained rescue teams that can extricate the living victims and get out as fast as possible. If there is visible fire, use deck guns and ladder pipes to protect exposures and knock it down from a safe distance.
Chief John Eversole, hazmat coordinator for the Chicago Fire Department, points out: "Whenever possible, we have to minimize the manpower involved by going back to the basics of size-up and risk management...Every jurisdiction must have a firm policy on who's going to do what and how they're going to do it."
The Federal Emergency Manage-ment Agency (FEMA) was scheduled to convene a conference in February with fire service leaders and government agencies involved in the terrorism problem. The purpose is to allocate and plan the use of federal funds to help train local fire departments. Thanks to a strong effort by FEMA, an additional $20 million has become available from the Department of Defense to supplement the measly $5 million Congress originally granted for fire-rescue training.
With help from fire and police chiefs in other countries who have dealt with terrorism for a long time, the National Fire Academy (NFA) has prepared a basic three-hour "awareness course" and a two-day training program that will be taught in every region of the country by qualified instructors. According to NFA Superintendent Dr. Denis Onieal, these courses will be available to every fire department, large or small, through their state training systems.
Now it's up to every fire department to start taking the threat seriously. Whether it comes from a foreign terrorist fighting for a cause, a home-grown American lunatic with a grudge against the government, a fanatic on the fringe of the anti-abortion movement or a teenage prankster committing a "copy cat" crime the end result is the same when a bomb goes off. If you have any doubts about the scope of the problem, be aware that the Internet has hundreds of Web sites where anyone can dial in and learn how to construct a bomb.
No one is seized with panic or predicting that there will be more incidents similar to the near-disaster in Georgia. But the experts are concerned that the danger has escalated to a new level and that prudent, common-sense measures have to be taken. It's best summed up by Chief Ray Downey, in charge of special operations for the New York City Fire Department, who warns: "The fire service has to be aware of what's going on. They have to stop thinking that it can be handled 'routinely' and that it 'can't happen here'...It can happen in any town and there's no such thing as a 'routine' response to an act of terrorism."
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is ABC News political director and served many years as a volunteer firefighter.