FDNY's Battalion Chief John J. Salka, Jr. asked Firehouse Expo attendees the question, "Is Your City the Next Ground Zero?" at his talk last week in Baltimore.
Salka discussed his ideas about steps that fire departments can take to prepare for terrorist activity near their homes.
"Has your fire department changed since 9/11?" he asked.
Few people raised their hands. Even fewer responded when he asked for dramatic, substantial changes.
"We have to make changes. It's obvious we have to make changes," he said.
Salka asked the crowd if there was any possibility of a terrorist attack in each person's city, or if an attack elsewhere could cause damage or destruction to those cities, or if the cities could serve as a launch pad or planning site for an attack, or have weapons transported nearby.
"If the answer is yes, you need to be doing something about it rather than talking about it," he said.
Salka came up with general ideas for preparation, which he said should be built on or varied depending on any department's needs and resources.
His main suggestion is that departments establish a bureau or division that specifically and solely deals with terrorism, from training to equipping and deploying, with sub units for specific elements of terrorism.
He also stressed that good people should be put in charge of the terrorism division, and that they be should be ranked as staff chiefs with heavy decision making power. This should not be a project for a retired firefighter or the explorer program, he said.
The terrorism response team, or TRT, would have four members including people from EMS,fire and hazmat. They would go to incidents just to investigate the cause and see if there is any terrorist element to them. They should also monitor the news for reports and witnesses of the incident, and inform the field personnel about what they hear.
Salka said that ironically, fire officials at the World Trade Center attacks often knew less about the fires than people watching the news at home, because they didn't have nearly as good a view or variety of views. The TRT should not be a back up unit.
He suggests that the TRT have a response vehicle with communications and TV equipment, monitoring equipment for gases and hazardous materials, and binoculars.
Since the World Trade Center attacks, Salka also believes fire departments should do more site-specific training.
"If you don't learn something at an event like that, you're not paying attention," he said.