Homeland security has been integral to the fire service throughout our history, though we may not have considered it as such. We have protected our local communities from the threats we face, whether it be floods, tornadoes, earthquakes or terrorism.
The concept of homeland security is about breaking down the silos at all levels of government between the various public-safety disciplines, such as fire, EMS, law enforcement, emergency management and intelligence, in order to more seamlessly protect our communities. This includes protection from terrorism, which is the use of violence carried out by extremists for a political goal.
Unfortunately, many fire chiefs don’t have terrorism and homeland security (T&HS) on their list of important issues, but they should for three reasons:
First, terrorism can happen anywhere.
Second, grant funding is available to build local capabilities.
Lastly, preparing for terrorism makes us better able to respond to all types of incidents.
It Can Happen to You
When we think of the terms T&HS, we naturally think about places like New York, Los Angeles, Washington and other major metropolitan areas of the country. Incidents such as the Boston bombings, the LAX shootings and the attacks on 9/11 are major incidents making national news for days, weeks and even years.
Certainly, the major metropolitan areas are high-profile targets that garner much media attention, and they understand the need for their fire services to be an integral part of their homeland security efforts.
However, terrorism occurs in communities of every size: rural, urban and suburban.
Consider the case of the 38-year-old mother of two, living in Buffalo, Missouri, a small town (pop. 3,000) nestled in the Ozark Hills. She was arrested by the FBI in February 2016 for an online threat to kill two agents and was a well-known person in the ISIL twitter feeds.
In November 2015, an attack at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a city with a population of 439,000, resulted in three deaths and nine injuries. Communities of all sizes are at risk.
Terrorism occurs in every geographic area of the United States and Canada: from the 49 people killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, to the case in King Solomon, Alaska, where the FBI arrested a man in 2010 after he created a hit list of 15 buildings he wanted to blow up and then began downloading schematics to make a bomb.
Canada isn’t exempt from terrorist activities. In March 2015 in Ottawa, Ontario, members of Parliament received letters with white powder in them for their political positions. Across the country, in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, six pipelines were bombed between 2008 and 2009. The bombings were linked to opposition of the gas industry. Communities in every location are potential targets.
Terrorism occurs for a wide variety of reasons: antigovernment extremism, white supremacy, religious intolerance and environmental zealotry, to name just a few. In June 2015, nine people were killed in a shooting at a Charleston, South Carolina church in order to start a race war.
In August 2012, six people were killed at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, due to their religious beliefs. In August 2014, three people were killed in Overland Park, Kansas, at a Jewish Community Center by a self-proclaimed anti-Semitic. People with extremist views live in every community and some are willing to cross societal norms to further promote their agenda. Every community is vulnerable.
There Is Potential Grant Funding
While there’s a wide variety of grants that can benefit the fire service, in the United States, the best-known fall under the Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) program and the Homeland Security Grant Program (HSGP).
The AFG grants are specifically targeted to provide the equipment, apparatus, training and salaries necessary to protect and serve communities. In FY2016, $690 million was allocated to support the local fire service through the AFG.
Why would the American federal government spend $690 million on local fire resources? It’s because the fire service is a key component of homeland security.
In addition, over $1 billion was appropriated to the HSGP. This grant is specifically targeted to support the building, sustainment and delivery of core capabilities to secure the nation. These funds are being used to build homeland-security capabilities across the entire community, including the fire service.
This year, Congress provided $10 million for state and local governments to counter violent extremism. The funding can be used in part for training and exercises. Fire departments that understand they’re part of the all-hazard approach to protecting our communities can work to secure federal resources to build their capabilities.
When We Prepare for Terrorism, We Become Better Prepared for All Emergencies
The technical skills gained during jointly held terrorism training has wide applicability to other emergencies.
When law-enforcement officers train with firefighters for active-shooter events, the ICS skills transfer over to working together at accident scenes. When law enforcement officers are included in a mass-casualty exercise and have to apply bleeding control techniques, they can use those same skills when they arrive first to a stabbing on a routine call. Firefighters who are trained for suspicious-activity reporting should have better situational awareness and reporting of their findings to incident command when at a house fire.
While there’s much to be gained with technical skills, more important are the relationships that are built with other agencies. Street-level firefighters, EMS workers and police officers who train or exercise together for a terrorism event will most likely run into each other on the street. This is particularly true in small and mid-sized communities.
We know that when people get to know each other on an individual basis, it builds trust.
Trust is required to amicably resolve a difference of opinion on blocking a lane at the scene of an MVA. Trust is needed when the hazmat team tells the law-enforcement officer that he’s parked too close to an accident and he needs to move. Trust is needed when the police investigator asks us not to destroy evidence while we’re working a drug deal gone bad. Joint terrorism training builds this trust.