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Terrorism & Homeland Security: Complex Coordinated Attacks – More than Active-Shooter Events

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 seventh article in this year’s series. 

“Complex coordinated attack” (CCA). It seems there’s always a new buzzword popping up—and with an acronym. This one’s no different, except this one can help change our mindset on how we go about our work, how we plan and how we train—and there is grant funding attached to it.

As the name implies, a complex coordinated attack requires that the attack be complex, meaning that it occurs in multiple locations with multiple attack modes, and that those attacks are coordinated by the attackers to provide maximum effect.

This is more than an active-shooter event. While it typically involves active shooters, it also includes other means of attack, such as terrorism by fire, hostages, explosives or hazmat release. While active-shooter incidents may tax jurisdictions to their limits, a CCA by its very nature is designed to overwhelm it.

So what changed? Simply put: Paris.

CCAs have been around for a long time, but in the United States and Canada most people haven’t taken notice because they were occurring in non-western countries that lack the intelligence and security systems of western countries. Even when a major CCA happened in Mumbai, India, in November 2008—carried out by 10 extremists in multiple locations, lasting four days and killing or injuring 472—few westerners thought much about it once it fell off the 24-hour news cycle.

However, last November, when three teams of three attackers, each with suicide vests, attacked six separate locations and conducted mass shootings, killing 130 and injuring more than 350 others, CCA came to the social consciousness of westerners: If it can happen in France, it can happen anywhere.

Clearly, extremists who want to do harm continue to adapt and refine their skills to maximize their impact. We must be prepared because the fire and emergency service is part of the very systems the attacks are trying to collapse. Our failure increases the deaths and suffering.

Consider whether your police officers would know what to do if there was a hazmat release along with an active-shooter event. Who is handling what first? Historically, for each minute of delay, two additional people die.

Likewise, what if there is a large building on fire with people trapped yet there are active shooters? Who does what and when? Now compound that with simultaneous incidents across the community. Can law enforcement, fire and EMS officials come together to develop a coordinated strategy?

Fortunately, while most westerners were oblivious to the changes in the threats facing us, analysts were studying the foreign attacks and the extremist’s propaganda. Programs and training were being rolled out at the national level to help communities prepare for such an event.

One such program is the Joint Counterterrorism Awareness Workshop (JCTAW, pronounced jic-taw) through the National Counterterrorism Center, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, which provides whole community-based training through a CCA scenario. This two-day training and exercise is designed to pull all community partners together to identify gaps when faced with a CCA. Fire chiefs are encouraged to reach out to their law-enforcement and community leaders to develop a coalition to request this critical training.

At the federal level, $39 million has been allocated for a new CCA Grant program. While the details are still being worked through, these funds are designed to better prepare us for when these events occur.

However, the benefit of preparing for CCAs is not limited to only those events. Rather, it gives a holistic view of working collaboratively in any situation, but particularly in active-shooter and terrorism incidents.

The IAFC’s Terrorism and Homeland Security Committee has resources available online to help fire chiefs better understand, prepare for and respond to CCAs and other hostile events. This is an emerging topic that every progressive fire and emergency service organization should become involved in early. 

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