Being the Eyes and Ears: Suspicious-Activity Reporting

Suspicious-activity reporting (SAR) is the basis of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's See Something, Say Something program. This program is marketed to citizens as a tool for providing early warning of terrorist attacks, allowing prevention or mitigation.

However, SAR creates challenges to the traditional role of the fire and emergency service as a trusted agent in our communities.

The primary challenge is how we balance SAR with maintaining our trusted-agent status. The answer is straightforward and includes training and policy development:

  • Train all members of the fire and emergency service to understand terrorism and homeland-security issues.
  • Develop policies that support SAR while ensuring that members of the fire service are acting in the same manner as citizens reporting SAR.

With proper training, our personnel can perform educated SAR, cutting down on profile-based reporting and other potentially illegal and damaging situations.

How important is the fire service in suspicious-activity reporting? Take a moment and think of the number of all the fire stations in every community across the nation. Now, add in responses, fire prevention inspections, prefire planning, community events and just the daily activities such as shopping for meals.

Our firefighters, EMTs and paramedics are in the community every day. If these men and women understand what to look for, they are in a unique position to be an important part of protecting our homeland with suspicious activity reporting.

The first part of suspicious-activity reporting is to understand the timeline of attack plotting and in particular those parts that allows for members of the fire service to notice and report an activity, such as preoperational surveillance, testing or dry runs, and acquiring or storing precursor materials.

With training, noticing activities that may be part of an attack plot could lead to an investigation that disrupts it before the attack.

The next part is understanding the tactics, techniques and practices (TTPs in the intelligence community) of terrorist or extremist groups; this ensures, for example, that items such as precursors for homemade explosives are recognized as such if discovered.

Combined with understanding what may be terrorist targets, including public transportation, retail outlets and large gatherings in public spaces, will help reinforce the need for situational awareness, whether responding to alarms or completing daily activities.

The fire and emergency service has access to intelligence to inform SAR. This intelligence is available through DHS's Roll Call Release and Fire Line products. If your department isn't receiving these important information products, reach out to your local fusion center.

The final part is having a well-defined departmental policy that ensures that those observing suspicious activity know how and to whom to report it, no matter the time or location. The policy should also ensure that the proper law-enforcement authorities are notified and that a point of contact is available in case additional information or follow-up is needed later.

With a departmental SAR policy and basic training, our 1.2 million members of the fire service are a force multiplier, bringing the See Something, Say Something program into every community across the United States on a daily basis.

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