Author(s): Scott Sutherland. Published on November 16, 2021.

In Plain Sight

Human trafficking doesn’t just happen in the shadows—more often, it’s right in front of us—and responders, inspectors, and other safety professionals have a role to play in stopping it


In 2012, as a firefighter with the Niagara Falls Fire Department in Ontario, Canada, Jeremy Inglis responded to a rescue call for a woman who’d attempted suicide by jumping into the Niagara River Gorge. The woman hadn’t reached the water below; she had tumbled through rocks and underbrush and was tangled in bushes on the edge of the escarpment. Inglis and another firefighter rappelled into the canyon to bring her back up.

The woman was in her mid-20s, bloodied and bruised but apparently not seriously injured, and she wanted nothing to do with a rescue. When they reached her, she screamed and fought them off, trying to claw through the bushes to reach the sheer drop into the gorge. Inglis and his partner kept talking to her, assuring her it was okay, that they were there to help. Eventually she stopped fighting. As she calmed down, she began to talk.

“She started telling this story that she was a sex worker who’d been based in a hotel room in the Niagara area, that her pimp had left the room, and that she’d escaped and tried to kill herself,” recalled Inglis, now deputy chief of support services for Central York Fire Services near Toronto. “We lifted her out of the gorge and transferred her to the paramedics, who took her to the hospital. That was the end of the interaction.” 

Not long after, Inglis’s wife, a medical professional, attended a presentation on the topic of human trafficking. Inglis didn’t know much about it, but as his wife described the details of the talk for him, he realized what he may have witnessed with the young woman in the gorge—and how much more they could have done for her. “We had no real understanding of trafficking, and we didn’t know what to look for or listen for,” Inglis said. “Our assumption was that, as a sex worker, she’d made the choice to do it, and she could leave anytime she wanted—it was all up to her. But we were wrong.”

Inglis recognized that the woman was likely a victim of human trafficking, trapped in a knot of manipulation, coercion, and mental and physical trauma that made it almost impossible for her to extricate herself. Had he known then what he knows now, his handling of the situation would have been very different. “Night and day,” he said. “We would’ve kept talking to her and accompanied her and the paramedics to the hospital. We might have picked up on cues indicating if there were other people—girls, boys—being run out of that hotel. We would’ve activated the community network that we have now, including victim services and the access they have to mental health services and clothing, accommodations, and food, so that she could be removed from the traffickers and have a place to live and start to get her feet back under her. There wouldn’t have been the disruption that came with multiple hand-offs to the paramedics, to the hospital, to the police. And there would’ve been a framework in place for us to follow up with her.” Without those tools, however, the woman was simply “lost in the wind again,” Inglis said. He doesn’t know what became of her.

Inglis’s experience illustrates the importance of understanding human trafficking and its indicators, and for organizations to develop protocols for identifying and reporting suspected incidents of trafficking. Generally, human trafficking is defined as people being forced, tricked, or frightened into performing labor or sex acts for profit, where most of the profit goes to the trafficker—what Polaris, an anti-trafficking organization, describes as “modern slavery.” Trafficking occurs in every country in the world and victimizes tens of millions of people: adults and children, domestic citizens and foreign nationals, legal and illegal workers. Current global conditions are contributing to an acute urgency for anti-trafficking advocates; pandemic-related stress on the service economies of the United States and Canada, for example, and large migrations of people in the Middle East, Africa, Central America, and elsewhere are creating vast populations worldwide that are especially vulnerable to trafficking.

As daunting as the problem can seem, NFPA’s constituents occupy ideal positions to help fight it. First responders, fire marshals, building inspectors, contractors, electricians, health inspectors—all of these and more can intersect with the activities of traffickers, and all can be trained to recognize and act on indicators of trafficking, saving lives in the process. To boost that awareness, January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and January 11 is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.

For Inglis, the woman in the gorge was “the spark that started everything for us—I didn’t want any other victims to fall through the cracks.” In 2016, in partnership with YWCA Niagara, he helped establish a human trafficking training program for his department. (His current department, Central York, will launch a training program in 2022.) He’s conducted the training for more than 500 firefighters throughout the Niagara region, and departments can already cite examples of trafficking efforts that were disrupted and victims rescued.

One of those rescues was the sister of a firefighter who took the training. “He had no idea what was happening—he thought maybe she’d been running with the wrong crowd and gotten into drugs, but he took the training and realized something else might be going on,” Inglis said. “She was being trafficked. He was able to connect with her and find out what she’d been living through, and he helped her get the help she needed.”

Heavy traffic

As the story of the firefighter’s sister demonstrates, modern trafficking can be difficult for most of us to spot, especially when it’s right in front of us.

Part of the misdirection can be attributed to our inaccurate notions of what trafficking is and how it’s practiced. A common belief is that victims are essentially kidnapped and spirited away to a life of imprisoned servitude, but in most cases the reality is far more subtle, and often conducted in plain sight. The cleaning crew that shows up at the office after hours, the day laborers who pile out of a van at a job site, the teenager who comes into the donut shop every morning at 7 a.m. and buys four large coffees and a half-dozen crullers—any of them could be victims of human trafficking.

Another misperception can be summed up in the maxim “it doesn’t happen here,” and if it does it primarily involves foreign nationals and illegal immigrants. “Both of those misperceptions are popular in Canada,” Inglis said. He cited a new report by the Canadian Center to End Human Trafficking, which found that trafficking is not only widespread throughout the country, but that an estimated 86 percent of trafficking victims in Canada are Canadian. “They’re the girl or boy next door,” he said. “And it’s just as prolific in small towns as it is in big cities.”

There’s also the belief that human trafficking is the problem of someone else, notably law enforcement. As with many other vital causes, however, the fight against human trafficking takes a village and requires buy-in and cooperation among forces that can join to combat the problem. “Law enforcement can’t know about every situation that might be going on, so we all need to act if we see something,” said Paul Jarrett, fire chief in Lexington, North Carolina, whose department has developed trafficking-awareness training. “We have to be the voice for these people—we have to be their advocate, because they have none.”

While precise figures are difficult to determine, the International Labor Organization estimates that more than 40 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking; 71 percent are women and girls, and a quarter of all victims are under the age of 18. About 25 million are exploited for labor; of those, 16 million are involved in domestic work, construction, or agriculture, nearly 5 million are in forced sexual exploitation, and 4 million are in forced labor imposed by state authorities.

The more sophisticated versions of trafficking exploit local vulnerabilities—most often economic hardship—while embedding themselves in the fabric of the local economy. In the US, Polaris has identified 25 types of human trafficking, ranging from strip clubs and pornography production to outdoor solicitation to forestry and logging (see “Theme & Variations,” below right). To develop its typology, Polaris analyzed more than 32,000 cases of human trafficking documented between 2007 and 2016 through the operation of its National Human Trafficking Hotline (1.888.373.7888) and the BeFree Textline (text 233733, or BEFREE)—what it describes as the largest data set on human trafficking ever compiled and analyzed in the US. Each variant has its own business model, trafficker profiles, recruitment strategies, victim profiles, and methods of control that facilitate human trafficking.

Theme & Variations

Polaris, an anti-trafficking organization, has identified 25 types of human trafficking that it characterizes as “modern slavery”:

• Escort services
Illicit massage, health, and beauty
Outdoor solicitation
Residential brothels
Domestic work
Bars, strip clubs, and cantinas
Pornography production
Traveling sales crews
Restaurants and food service
Peddling and begging
Agriculture and animal husbandry
Personal sexual servitude
Health and beauty services
Hotels and hospitality
Illicit activities
• Arts and entertainment, including modeling, athletics, acting, dance troupes, and more
Commercial cleaning services
Factories and manufacturing
Remote interactive sexual acts
• Forestry and logging
Health care
Recreational facilities

“With this greater understanding, we can begin to develop strategic campaigns to spur systematic action, unite disparate efforts, allocate limited resources, and facilitate effective interventions to combat the crime,” reports Polaris on its website, “We can close policy loopholes and adopt safeguards that make it more difficult for bad actors to abuse vulnerable and at-risk populations. Cities and communities that want to take action can better understand which of the 25 types are present in their areas and design more targeted campaigns. … Smart, targeted interventions can be coordinated and directed at specific types of trafficking, reducing the chance that human trafficking continues to be a low-risk, high-profit crime.”

Community effort

The low-risk nature of human trafficking is key to its prevalence, which is why Inglis, Jarrett, and other anti-trafficking advocates urge every fire department to develop a training program designed to boost awareness of the problem—not just for firefighters, but for entire communities. As a result of their direct contact with potential victims of human trafficking, first responders, Inglis said, “are in an ideal position to spot indicators of possible trafficking and to take steps that can lead to those people being removed from potentially dangerous situations.”

Inglis stressed the importance of trauma training before fire service members undertake any training on human trafficking. “For a lot of trafficking victims, the mental trauma they suffer is the worst injury,” he said. Some of the most effective traffickers utilize destructive psychological processes that can result in a victim believing they’re participating of their own free will, even if the activity constitutes extreme physical abuse. “That’s why your responders need to be trauma-informed before they even step into this,” Inglis said. “They need to understand the layers and complexity that can exist for someone who might have endured years of mental and physical abuse.”

Safety and enforcement officials can also play an important role in identifying people caught in trafficking schemes and in creating conditions in communities that can discourage trafficking activities. In North Carolina, for example, Jarrett said, every commercial building and every residential building with more than two units requires periodic inspections every one, two, or three years. “That accessibility makes it a huge part of what NFPA and the inspection schedule can offer,” Jarrett said. “That gives us a lot of opportunities to get into those places through the codes.”

Inglis and Jarrett list an array of possible indicators of trafficking that may present themselves to local enforcement officials: signs of people living at commercial occupancies, including sleeping areas and food storage; barred windows; doors locked from the outside; and unmarked vehicles used for business purposes, to name a few. If people are present, is there one person who appears to control a person or group? Are people permitted to speak for themselves? Do they have their own identification? Do they know what community, state, or even country they’re in?

Part of developing an effective response to human trafficking is for jurisdictions to develop clearly defined protocols for what to do if trafficking is suspected, Inglis said. “You need a solid framework for how you’re going to handle the reporting and the follow-through,” he said. “Inspectors who encounter something and who think to themselves, ‘that doesn’t look right’—they need clear guidance on the proper steps to take next. They need to understand what resources are available to them, and the resources that are available to victims.”

To keep up with emerging variations of trafficking in a community, experts say, it can help to think like a trafficker. “There’s always room for growth,” Inglis said, noting that Airbnb properties in his area seem to be increasingly utilized as temporary locations for trafficking activities. But that can also offer safety authorities a way in, he said. “A lot of municipalities are enacting bylaws that say, in order to have an Airbnb property, you have to apply for a license,” he said. “Part of that licensing is to have the property inspected. The chance of seeing something in a one-time inspection is almost nil, but if you’re looking at it annually or biannually, you may start to pick up on things. And there’s a better chance for the community to pick up on it if it’s educated and aware.”

Human trafficking, which has been described as a form of modern slavery, can take many different forms.  GETTY IMAGES

Context & Training
Online resources to help you address human trafficking, including background, statistics, hotlines, training programs, and more

Polaris, an anti-trafficking organization that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1.888.373.7888), includes a variety of background and data sources on the problem.

The International Labor Organization includes statistics on human trafficking worldwide.

The US Fire Administration includes background on human trafficking as well as training resources for responders.

The Department of Homeland Security includes training on human trafficking awareness.

The site is a Canadian resource for general training in trafficking awareness for a variety of professions. 

The Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline is 1.833.900.1010.

The faith-based organization World Relief includes a variety of training resources for responders, law enforcement, homeless and juvenile resource providers, and more.

The Administration for Children & Families, part of the US Department of Health & Human Services, runs the Office on Trafficking in Persons, which provides training and technical assistance for a variety of professionals, including child welfare practitioners, public health and medical service providers, violence prevention agencies, and many more.

Jarrett’s department is part of an effort to bring a communitywide awareness of human trafficking to Lexington, a city of about 20,000 in central North Carolina. Lexington boasts a healthy tourist economy; the city bills itself as “The Barbeque Capital of the World,” and attractions include wineries, museums, and NASCAR history. Restaurants are an important component of the local economy—but they can also be hubs for trafficking. That’s why the Lexington Fire Department is part of an effort led by World Relief, a faith-based nongovernmental organization, and its labor-trafficking task force to monitor restaurants in the region.

While trafficking can occur with local or immigrant workers, Jarrett said, the immigrant population can be especially vulnerable. “Workers are promised jobs and that they can pursue the dream like everybody else, but then they get here, and it’s not like that at all,” he said. “The hours are much longer, and they’re paid next to nothing. They have to live in the restaurant or in a garage or outbuilding. They have little access to health care. They have no paperwork, no friends, no connections—they’re just stuck, whether they’re here legally or illegally. The idea with the World Relief project is to help us get trafficking education to the right people—fire marshals, fire inspectors, health department workers, the people who’ll be in these restaurants where they can see what’s going on.”

Creating opportunities for that awareness, advocates say, is a critical first step in the fight against human trafficking. “After almost every training session I’ve done, I’ve had multiple people come forward with stories of situations they’d encountered in the past, and they say, ‘If I’d known this then, I would’ve taken a different approach,’” Inglis said. “It’s pretty profound to hear that kind of feedback.”

Jarrett said he often thinks about some of the things he’s observed during his career and whether they were signs of human trafficking. “There were times when I was out doing an inspection and I’d see something and think, ‘Huh, that’s odd—I wonder why they do that?’ and then I’d move on,” he said. “Now I’ll see it and think it’s odd, but I’ll also wonder if it might be a clue. And I’m going to let my law enforcement friends know about it.”


SCOTT SUTHERLAND is the executive editor of NFPA Journal. Top photograph: GETTY IMAGES