OVER THE COURSE OF THREE DAYS in November 2008, a group of Pakistani terrorists blazed a trail of destruction through Mumbai, India, leaving more than 450 people dead or injured. Coordinated attacks occurred throughout the city of 18 million, but media attention centered on the five-star Taj Mahal Hotel, which the terrorists set ablaze in spectacular fashion. Trapped guests hung out of windows trying to escape the smoke and flames, while overwhelmed first responders struggled to gain control over the scene amid smoke, fire, active shooters, and an intense hostage situation.
The event was “a game changer,” Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Chief Joseph Pfeifer told Congress during a 2013 hearing. “In this case, fire was used as a strategic weapon … one for which (first responders) were not prepared.”
From the 2012 attacks on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya, where the American ambassador and a foreign service official were killed by intentionally set fires, to the 2011 terrorist attacks in Germany where fire bombs were used aboard a train, terrorists are increasingly using fire as a means to kill, destroy property, and gain media attention. Jihadist websites and the jihadist English-language magazine Inspire have repeatedly encouraged homegrown terrorists in the U.S. to set fires in both urban and wildland settings, according to a 2012 document, “Terrorist Interest in Using Fire as a Weapon,” jointly written by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, FDNY, and other agencies. Fire is attractive to terrorists because it requires little expertise, is inexpensive, and has the potential for widespread damage.
As a result, the fire threat cannot be ignored, said Pfeifer, head of counterterrorism and emergency preparedness at FDNY. “The fire community needs to understand the threat and look at vulnerabilities of the structures where large groups gather,” Pfeifer recently told NFPA Journal. “I see this moving forward as a collaborative effort throughout the country between the fire service and law enforcement.”
Leaders of the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association, a membership section of both NFPA and the International Association of Fire Chiefs, agreed, endorsing a position paper on the topic during the annual Urban Fire Forum, held in September. The paper urges fire departments and law enforcement agencies, regardless of size or capacity, “to coordinate appropriate and effective responses to these events” and “establish standard operating procedures to deal with these unusual, highly volatile, and extraordinarily dangerous scenarios.”
The paper calls for cross training between the fire service and law enforcement, and includes recommended protocols for command operations, inter-agency communication, and when and how firefighters should be deployed. Much of the information is from a 2012 plan created by FDNY and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
In these situations, interagency cooperation is key, Pfeifer said. “You need a combination of law enforcement and fire personnel to manage a complex event—it is about using people’s core competencies to save lives,” he said. “You do that by working collaboratively to develop and test protocols. In that way we will be prepared when incidents occur.”
Lori Moore-Merrell, the assistant to the general president at the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), pushed hard for the topic to be addressed at the recent forum. “We know terrorists aren’t stupid—they’re becoming more savvy with improvised attacks, and we need to anticipate what to do to continue our operational response,” she said. “We think of this as inevitable—it’s when, not if—and our members will be in the middle of it.”
The active shooter model Firefighters are being asked to take on more roles in more types of emergency scenarios than ever before, some of which can literally put them in the line of fire. Events such as the Newtown, Connecticut, school shootings, the Virginia Tech shootings, and the Boston Marathon bombings all included fire department response.
The position paper on fire as a weapon is a companion to a paper the Metro Chiefs and Urban Fire Forum Chiefs adopted last year on active shooters and mass-casualty terrorist events, which addressed protocols for situations with shooters but no fire. In those situations, firefighters and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel form rescue teams to extricate victims and administer first aid. In a situation with shooters and fire, firefighters also need to repair suppression systems, if necessary, and put the fire out. In each instance, protocol is that firefighters and EMS should not move in until law enforcement determines an area is cleared of identifiable suspects and explosive devices, according to the position papers.
Many fire departments have, or are developing, active-shooter protocols, said Moore-Merrell of IAFF, which reviews and provides input on those documents. She expects similar movement soon on the issue of fire as a weapon. “We’ve provided a baseline protocol and training,” she said of the latest position paper. “If departments have taken advantage of the active shooter paper and started training, this is the next logical step.” She urged fire departments to contact local local law enforcement partners and begin jointly developing plans and training exercises.
“These events will continue to happen,” Moore-Merrell said, “and we need to be prepared.”