Terrorism & Homeland Security: Suspicious Activity Reporting – The Fire Service’s Moral Obligation

The fire service is an integral piece of the homeland-security puzzle. Chiefs must be advocates and partners and knowledgeable about the issues. To help you accomplish that, the IAFC's Terrorism & Homeland Security Committee is bringing you this year's T&HS series, offering an in-depth look at the current issues and the resources available through the IAFC. This is the third article in this year’s series.

Imagine one of your engine companies making a medical response to a home for a fall victim. On their arrival, they find a nine-year-old girl with a laceration to her head and bruising to her head and legs in various stages of healing, who is very shy and won’t look at the crew. The father is the only adult home and says he only needed her checked out and refused to let the crew transport.

Would a crew think twice about reporting it? We all know they would report it in a heartbeat because they’re mandated reporters. But more importantly, we’re fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, and we don’t tolerate suspected abuse of children.

What would your engine company do if they responded to a medical call to a man with deep burns to his hands? On the coffee table, they see a dozen cold packs that are cut open, some bottles of 30% concentrated hydrogen peroxide and a can of acetone. The man refuses transport and says that he will drive himself to the hospital.

Would they report what they saw? Would they even know what they saw? Would they know how to report it if they decided that it was something suspicious?

In many fire and EMS departments, they wouldn’t recognize that these are basic bombmaking components. These personnel are still fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who would never knowingly allow someone to make an illegal bomb.

What is the difference between the two scenarios? Two things are different.

First, in the case of the girl, crews have been trained to recognize the signs of possible abuse and that they need to report it; with bombmaking components, they probably don’t have the same sort of training.

They may suspect they’ve encountered a meth lab and that something nefarious is up, but they may not realize that these are actually bomb precursors.

Second, the crew probably knows the exact procedures on how to report suspected abuse, but may not know how to report suspicious activity. Most departments don’t have a procedure for reporting suspicious activity, yet it can have as great or greater impact on the community if it isn’t reported to the proper people.

In this simple, yet realistic example, we see what we must do. We must train our personnel on how to recognize suspicious activity when they see it and we must develop procedures that tells them how to report it.

The IAFC’s Terrorism and Homeland Security Committee and other agencies have already done the heavy lifting on this. The IAFC's Homeland Security Intelligence Guide will help fire chiefs get started

There will be a few skeptics within the ranks; the chief may be one of them. Some may have a concern over privacy issues and others a concern over our public image.

The good news is that this is all covered in the available resources. They explain how firefighters must be trained in respecting the First Amendment and only reporting activities that are suspicious, not things such as race, religion or ethnicity. Firefighters should also not go looking for something suspicious—but they must be able to recognize when something is suspicious and then know how to report it.

On January 6, 1995, firefighters in Manila, Philippines, responded to the report of a cooking fire in an apartment. In reality, two individuals were mixing chemicals to make bombs. The fire was out before the fire department arrived and the two individuals took off, but upon investigation, the Bonjika plot was discovered: a plan to assassinate the Pope with a suicide bomb only days later, blow up 11 airliners headed to the United States and crash a small plane into the CIA headquarters.

This plot was foiled and one of the coconspirators was captured when he returned to the apartment to destroy the evidence; a second was captured 77 hour later and was determined to be the mastermind of the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. Unfortunately, a third coconspirator from the apartment went uncaptured until 2003. He was determined to be the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

This complex, coordinated attack out of Manila was averted due to the suspicious reporting of frontline responders, saving thousands of lives. The fire service must be this diligent. The IAFC’s Terrorism and Homeland Security Committee asks that you implement a SAR procedure today.

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