(Al-Hayat Media Center)

Fire as a Weapon Incidents Database (FWID) Highlights Gaps in Fire Reporting Systems

In an incident in Washington State, an armed suspect involved in a domestic violence dispute, engaged police in a standoff and fired at officers while keeping a hostage in the residence. The suspect then detonated explosives that set the residence on fire, causing more explosions. The fire department were not able to get close to the fire and extinguish it due to the threat of explosives at the scene and the police department could not advance into the house and secure it while fire was still present. The suspect refused to surrender or release the hostage from the burning house, and both of them were pronounced dead at the scene. In another incident in New York City, a suspect armed with two handguns, multiple knives, rope, wire, and a full can of gasoline, fired indiscriminate shots in the air outside a cathedral during a Christmas concert. The suspect was neutralized before anyone sustained injuries, but due to the public location, numerous attendees, and multiple threat modalities, it could have turned into a much more complex incident. The presence of fire during an active violence incident brings both police and fire departments to the scene and increases the risk of sustaining injuries by both victims and first responders. Actual and thwarted attempts to utilize fire as a weapon (FaW)to inflict harm on victims or to create a diversion, among other strategies, places FaW in a separate category of fire-related incidents, and requires careful consideration of the potential or real complications fire can introduce to a scene.

Fire as a Weapon, or Active Violence with Fire, refers to incidents, actual or thwarted, where fire/smoke is directly used to inflict harm on a person or a group of people, as well as incidents where fire/smoke/fire alarm are introduced to create a diversion and complicate response/rescue efforts. Oftentimes fire and/or smoke is used in addition to other weapons and tactics.

Until now, there has been no known attempt to track FaW incidents, as national fire reporting systems typically classify all fire-related incidents as “arson.” The High Threat Response Program recognized not only the importance of this threat but also its specific characteristics that require special considerations during an integrated response. The research team has been actively tracking incidents in 2020 that fit the operational definition, and work is already underway to track older incidents and expand the database. The FWID explores incident elements such as location and target classification and offers details about the suspect, fire modality, and additional weapons used. The database typically excludes accidental fires with no malicious intent and arson, such as setting fire to unoccupied buildings and vehicles, unless the arson is a part of a more complex attack or incident. Exceptions may apply if particular incident aspects or circumstances offer valuable lessons from investigative, threat assessment, and operational perspectives.

The High Threat Response Program expanded its work in the FaW arena by conducting training and testing sessions, engaging first responders in Northern Virginia to test tactics and tools that can help mitigate fire used as a weapon. Participating fire and police departments engaged in integrated training and learned more about each department’s equipment and capabilities, as well as their respective role during a response to incidents with a fire component. Such efforts not only improve the efficiency of the response but also provide overall awareness to hopefully reduce the risk of first responder injuries when operating in complex hostile environments.

The use of fire as a weapon goes far back in bad actors’ repertoire, but a lot of work is ahead of public safety agencies related to identifying, tracking, and analyzing such incidents. The FWID offers a representation of the severity of the issue and is indicative of the need to implement FaW as a separate category in reporting systems on the national level. A standardized approach would better scope the actual threat and allow for a more comprehensive view of the necessary steps needed to effectively prepare and respond to incidents with a fire component.

The FWID is available to the public and can benefit first responders, scholars, analysts, security professionals, and anyone interested in improving public safety. The database is continuously updated and improved as new sources of information become available or new incidents get reported. For database access and more information and resources related to FaW, as well as other high threat topics, please visit the High Threat Response Program Website: https://www.novahtrp.com/.

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Eva Jernegan is a research and intelligence analyst with the Arlington County (VA) High Threat Response Program and is the lead researcher of the High Threat Incidents Database (HTID) and the Fire as a Weapon Incidents Database (FWID). Eva participates in the Arlington County Public Schools Threat Assessment Team and contributed to the development of the K-12 School Shooting Database initiated by the Advanced Thinking in Homeland Security program. She was previously an investigative assistant at the Homicide/Robbery Unit of Arlington County Police Department and holds a Master’s degree in Forensic Psychology from George Washington University, where she was a graduate ambassador for international students.

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