Fire Service Needs Help On Anti-Terrorism Front

Editor's note: This column is excerpted from a letter sent to President Clinton on behalf of the Northeastern States Fire Consortium.

The Northeastern States Fire Consortium (NSFC) is made up of state fire officials and fire organizations from Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont. A major goal of the NSFC is to develop, in conjunction with the National Fire Academy, training for the fire service.

The NSFC is very concerned about the implementation of the section on domestic preparedness in the Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 1996. The intent of this section is to train and equip the first responders to nuclear, radiological, biological or chemical terrorist attacks.

In the event of a nuclear, radiological, chemical or biological terrorist attack, it will be the fire service, as the first responder, that will be called upon to save lives and mitigate the damage. It will be the responsibility of the fire chief on the scene to initiate the strategy and tactics needed to mitigate this life-threatening situation. Yet, the fire service has not received any training or equipment as required by this law.

The NSFC finds it totally unacceptable that an Interagency Advisory Group has been established to approve a Joint Federal Training Strategy to implement domestic preparedness and the fire service, which is responsible for incident mitigation, is not represented on this committee.

For the past few months, the National Fire Academy has been working very closely with the Department of Defense in the development of training programs on terrorism for the fire service. The National Fire Academy is the only federal agency that understands the capabilities and needs of the fire service. Yet, the academy is not part of the Interagency Advisory Group.

It appears that the needs of the fire service are not being addressed. It appears that the fire service is not being represented at the federal level. There is no one in the federal government who represents the fire service. Law enforcement has the attorney general as its spokesperson. The fire service has no one at this level of government.

It appears that the intent of this law is being jeopardized by bureaucratic squabbling and interagency turf wars. The purpose of domestic preparedness is to train and equip the first responder. If lives are to be saved at terrorist attacks, the fire service, with a three-to-five-minute response time, must be properly trained and equipped now.

In order to meet the needs of the fire service in domestic preparedness, the NSFC recommends the following:

  1. The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should be appointed as the spokesperson for the fire service at the federal level.
  2. A deputy director of FEMA should be appointed as fire service liaison.
  3. The National Fire Academy must be a member of the Inter-agency Advisory Group.
  4. Funding dedicated to the National Fire Academy to develop training courses for the fire service on how to properly handle these incidents.
  5. Funding dedicated to the National Fire Academy to develop training courses for fire chiefs, who will be the incident commanders, on how to handle these incidents.
  6. Funding dedicated to the National Fire Academy for the delivery of these courses to the fire service.
  7. The fire service to be immediately trained and equipped so it can accomplish its mission as the first responder to terrorist attacks.
  8. Agency roles to be defined at the federal level:
    1. Law enforcement to be responsible for prevention, investigation and apprehension.
    2. The fire service to be responsible for search, rescue and incident mitigation.

This will eliminate expensive duplication of services and bureaucratic squabbling.

The fire service, which is America's first line of Civil Defense against a terrorist attack, must receive training and equipment in order to accomplish its mission.

The House National Security subcommittee on military research and development held a hearing on the anti-terrorism issue in late February 1997. Oklahoma City Fire Chief Gary Marrs told the subcommittee that, two years after a bomb explosion at the Federal Building in his city killed 168 people, "We're not any more prepared than we were then." Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), the subcommittee's chairman and founder of the Congressional Fire Services Institute, said, "The first responder is not always going to be the Marines. We've got to take the technology that is in the military and put it in every city in America." He added, 'The local fire department, which is usually a bunch of volunteers, can't afford this they're out there raising money by holding chicken dinners." And California Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the panel, said, "We need to develop dual-use technology to respond not only to military threats but to domestic ones."

Thomas M. Kennedy is an FDNY battalion chief and a member of the Northeastern States Fire Consortium.