Over the past decade, the fire service has undergone significant changes. Arguably, those changes are the result of the domestic terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City, OK in 1995. Although the typical call a firefighter responds to is not an act of terrorism, the fire service is now an integral partner in the War on Terror.
In an exclusive interview, Chief Keith Bryant of the Oklahoma City Fire Department said the threat of terrorism has changed the role of the firefighter.
“Whereas the fire service once focused solely on response to fire, emergency medical, hazardous materials and rescue incidents, the Firefighter now has to have an increased awareness of potential terrorist threats, the ability to recognize situations and circumstances as possible terrorist actions, and is increasingly involved in identifying potential targets in order to take preventive measures,” Bryant explained.
Since the fire service has a role in the fight against terrorism, training and preparedness must become integral to fire departments around the nation. Fire departments are now involved in identifying threats aimed at a range of targets, including critical infrastructure, such as bridges and tunnels, and public events, such as concerts, fairs, and sporting events. The fire service needs its training to evolve around incidents that may occur at those targets and in those venues.
Chief Bryant further explained that although there was no specific training in terrorism response before the Oklahoma City bombing, the city had experienced frequent natural disasters, including tornados, floods, wildfires, etc., and therefore was “well trained and experienced in responding to large scale, high casualty events.”
Fire departments across the United States, including Oklahoma City, have adapted their training from basic search and rescue operations to now include training in the use of specialized equipment. Firefighters are warned about the need to exercise additional caution, especially as it relates to secondary explosive devices.
Fire academies around the country, including the Monmouth County Fire Academy in New Jersey, which I attended, teach terrorism response courses in order to raise awareness of the heightened threats we face. This training includes responding to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive attacks, as well as secondary explosive devices, which are typically aimed at killing and injuring firefighters, as well as police officers, paramedics, and other first responders.
In a 2011 interview with FireRescue Magazine, Chief of Counterterrorism and Emergency Preparedness for the FDNY Joseph Pfeifer commented, “We sent all people through awareness training and what to do on particular events. Fortunately, we got some grant money to do that—it cost about $1 million an hour to train the entire department, but we wanted people to be fully aware of this new threat environment.”
Pfeifer added, “Since then, we’ve greatly enhanced the level of training, so [for example] we recently trained on a bus bomb incident where firefighters and EMTs had to determine, what would you do? How do you remove victims quickly? We’ve learned new techniques for moving patients, such as with a Sked. So we’ve developed new ideas on how to deal with this type of an event.”
Chief Bryant also sees training between the fire service and other agencies at all levels of government as “absolutely crucial.” He explained, “Our experience with natural and manmade disasters has taught us you need expertise, personnel and resources outside of our Department to efficiently manage these incidents.”
To that point, the fire service in New Jersey works in concert with the Regional Operations and Intelligence Center in order to better understand current threats. The reports we receive from them include everything from weather risks to emergency response to information regarding threats against critical infrastructure and first responders. Those reports allow us to be better prepared to respond to a multitude of events.
On December 7, 2015, 5 days after the San Bernardino terrorist attack, Marlboro, NJ experienced a terrorism scare. A passenger on a New Jersey Transit bus called police to report a suspicious man who was holding a bag with a clock on the front of it. The bus was evacuated and the man was questioned. Luckily, it was false alarm, but the response to the incident was massive.
Aside from the state, county and local police response, all four fire companies in Marlboro, including my own, responded to the scene and stood ready to suppress anypotential explosion and treat victims. Fortunately, it did not come to that, but it was a relief to see how our fire departments, being all-volunteer, could respond quickly to a call out of our normal scope.
Going forward, Chief Bryant has concerns regarding how the fire service will be able to remain a critical component of the homeland security stakeholder community. In a word, that concern is “money.”
“I’m very concerned about the decreasing funding at the federal and state level in terms of that resulting in less training and equipment available in a time of heightened threats,” said Bryant. “The biggest need in my mind will always be in planning and preparedness which certainly includes training. All of the components of response to incidents of terrorism have to be in place to maintain the highest state of readiness possible.”
As in all matters of government, funding will continue to remain an issue, and will become more pronounced as the fight against extremism escalates.
If the Oklahoma City bombing began the process of integrating terrorism response to the functions of the fire service, the attacks of September 11, 2001 cemented that process. However, since 9/11, the fire service has quickly adapted to its new role as an integral partner in the War on Terror, which still rages, fiercer than ever.
Derek DeLuca is a research assistant at Monmouth University and a volunteer firefighter. He holds a MA in criminal justice and homeland security and BA in criminal justice from Monmouth University.