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Terrorism & Homeland Security: Intelligence – The Role of the Fire Service

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 second article in the series.

“That’s not our job” may be the first thing that comes to mind when someone suggests that the fire service should be an integral partner in the homeland-security intelligence and information-sharing process. It conjures up images of spies and dark secrets.

However, that isn’t what it is and the fire service must be involved in it for two reasons:

  • To help us do our jobs better
  • To help others keep us safe

Intelligence and Information – For the past several years, the fire service has adopted the concept of situational awareness from the military. Situational awareness is defined as the ability to identify, process and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening.

Or as the U.S. Coast Guard puts it, “It’s knowing what’s going on around you.”

On the response scene, we want our personnel to have good situational awareness. It keeps them safe and helps them operate more effectively. Chief officers need to know what’s going on around them as well, only in a more strategic sense.

That’s what intelligence and information is about: providing situational awareness to allow chiefs the ability to make good policy decisions.

Helping us do our jobs better – Receiving good information is key to effectively fulfilling our mission. We need to know about emerging threats so we can properly prepare for them. For example, if you have intelligence about ricin potentially being produced in your community, it allows your firefighters and hazmat teams to brush up on their procedures should an incident occur. Without a partnership for intelligence and information-sharing, your first opportunity to prepare will be when the alarm goes off.

Similarly, it helps us do our jobs better by helping us make better strategic decisions. Having information about critical infrastructure and its risks is valuable in determining what capabilities we need to develop, budget priorities, preincident planning policy, training gaps and a wide range of other big-picture issues. Intelligence and Information can provide this to chiefs who are engaged.

Keeping our communities safe – More than 1.4 million firefighters from every background, race, ethnicity, religion and political ideology are protecting our communities every day. They’re knit into the very fabric of the communities they serve, not only through their departments, but also other organizations they’re involved in. These firefighters are committed to the safety of the public, so who better to know when something looks suspicious and report it.

The role of the fire service isn’t to alter its mission to gain information on the sly, but rather to simply report what we see that doesn’t seem right. For example, firefighters may see precursors to explosives. If they’re trained to recognize them and have a process for reporting it, this makes the community safer. This is the same concept we want the general public to use: if you see something, say something. Lives have been saved because someone noticed that things didn’t seem right and reported it.

Conversely, there are too many incidents where after the fact it was learned that others had information that could have prevented the tragedy, but they didn’t say anything.

The fire service must keep in mind that its responsibility is the same as any good citizen. It should not in any way, view itself as an extension of law enforcement or feel an obligation to try to find suspicious activity. To do so would hamper our core mission and potentially run afoul of the U.S. constitution.

To avoid these pitfalls, the IAFC’s Terrorism and Homeland Security Committee has developed an excellent resource to guide fire chiefs. Homeland Security: Intelligence Guide for Fire Chiefs should be read by all chief officers, and the fourth edition of this guide will be released very soon.

It provides a quick overview of the various intelligence sources, such as fusion centers, joint terrorism task forces and the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN), to name a few.

It addresses suspicious reporting and the national suspicious-activity reporting system and the If You See Something, Say Something initiative. It also discusses what security clearances are and when they’re needed. Lastly, it covers how to roll the issue out to the rank and file and provides a list of additional resources.

A second resource that has just been released by the committee is the Job Aid for Fire Service Intelligence Integration, also about to be released. This is a quick read and is designed to enhance access, knowledge and use of intelligence information for fire service personnel using the crawl, walk and run model.

The fire service has a long-established history of developing partnerships to help our community. This is the latest of the ever-evolving trend.

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