What Company Officers Need to Know to Save Lives

This is the first in the series of SAR case studies. It focuses on the NSI-defined activity Material Acquisition/Storage. This activity is defined as the "acquisition and/or storage of unusual quantities of material such as cell phones, pagers, fuel, chemicals, toxic material and timers, such that a reasonable person would suspect possible criminal/terrorist activity."

“Whether a plan for a terrorist attack is homegrown or originates overseas,
important knowledge that may forewarn of a future attack may be derived
from information gathered by state, local and tribal government personnel
in the course of routine … activities.”

—National Strategy for Information Sharing, October 2007

Date of incident: October 2011
Dispatch: Investigation; smoke in a building
Response: Single engine company

Upon arrival, white smoke was issuing from a single apartment with several occupants standing on the balcony. One occupant claimed he was boiling pasta and it overflowed.

On further investigation, the crew found no evidence of a cooking fire; rather, they found several chemicals, including Drano, on the kitchen counter.

Fire crews were then summoned by two females who lived in an adjacent apartments; they complained their skin felt like it was burning (EMS was notified). The fire crew reentered for routine monitoring, but found nothing. Further investigation revealed six bottles of acetone, two bottles of hydrogen peroxide, homemade bomb-making paraphernalia, a book on electronics and circuitry and a shelf full of other chemicals.

A list of these chemicals was recorded in the officer’s notes.

Arson investigations, FBI JTTF and police EOD were notified; all responded to the incident and conducted independent investigations within their lane of responsibility.

The occupant also had just picked up a package from the front desk, which contained two pounds of ammonium nitrate pills. He maintained his story that he was boiling pasta until questioned by arson investigators and EOD technicians. At that time, the occupant changed his story and admitted he was boiling Drano to produce a strong acid to make tie-dye shirts; no evidence was found of shirts.

Upon further questioning, the occupant admitted to conducting homemade chemistry experiments, which included making crystals, because his community college chemistry curriculum would not allow him to conduct the experiments in the lab.

Lessons Learned

There is no routine response. The incident began as a routine smoke-investigation incident and materialized into an EOD incident. The information found in the occupant’s residence was consistent with making homemade explosives.

While his motives stem more from curiosity than malicious intent, the accidental ramifications of such are the same for fire department response. The occupant most likely will continue to conduct experiments in another apartment complex.

To highlight the importance of Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) within the fire and emergency service and to emphasize the importance of training on and understanding the reporting policy, the IAFC’s Committee on Terrorism and Homeland Security is presenting this monthly series. It highlights components, as identified by the National SAR Initiative (NSI), of potential criminal or terrorism activity that requires further investigation by providing actual case examples from across the United States.

These events could occur in any fire/EMS department anywhere. SAR reporting should be incorporated as part of our public responsibility to recognize and report observed behaviors, activities or materials we encounter in the course of our daily duties that present outside the reasonable norm.

For more information on SAR reporting, go to NSI.NCIRC.gov. For subject-specific training products, you can access the following document on JCAT tab on LEO and HSIN:

  • Roll Call Releases:
    • Cold Pack Chemicals. Potential Use in Improvised Explosives
    • Violent Extremist Manuals - A Potential Indicator of Production Efforts 
    • Homemade Explosive Triacetone Triperoxide Mistaken for Methamphetamine 
    • Triacetone Triperoxide as Possible Homemade Explosive
    • Hydrogen Peroxide and Organic Fuel Mixtures as Possible Homemade Explosive
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