The American Fire Service and the FBI-Joint Terrorism Task Force

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a dozen times: “Why can’t the fire service get information from the feds that is as relevant as it is to law enforcement?”

The fact is that we can. We just have to ask and then commit to developing a partnership so they know what we need. One program that allows for this is the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). It’s a program that every fire department with potential terrorism targets should explore.

According to Robert T. Mahoney,

In spite of the fact that the terrorist threat to the United States has been realized for many years, and even after the disasters of September 11, 2001, not all emergency service departments have fully absorbed the lessons of that day. Some have not coordinated the work of each of their operational and administrative elements to create response patterns that specifically address this changed and highly dangerous operational environment. Unfortunately, at times the work of these different elements can become parochial and self-focused, and they may fail to coordinate their response pattern development efforts to reach a collective, functioning, best outcome that benefits the entire department. (Mahoney 2010)

Fire-service executives must tap into the external resources available to remain significant in the response to terrorist attacks in the continental United States. Regardless of individual departments’ mission statements, the fire service’s primary mission is to save lives and protect property. This goes beyond fire prevention/suppression and EMS response to include the prevention, detection, planning, mitigation and recovery from terrorist attacks.

What does this mean for the American fire service? The fire service is an integral piece of the homeland-security puzzle in which chiefs must be advocates and partners and knowledgeable about the issues (Hall 2017).

Before the 9/11 attacks, there were 35 JTTFs; these expanded to all 56 FBI field offices across the United States after 9/11. Since the attacks, nine fire departments nationwide have dedicated 11 members to the FBI-JTTF. Departments have increased training and response efforts in the areas of chemical, biologic, radiological, nuclear and explosive (CBRNE) events; active-shooter events; intelligence; and information-sharing.

However, the one tool buried in the toolbox that hasn’t been accessed by fire executives is partnering with their local FBI field office to improve counterterrorism activities from a fire-service perspective.

According to Chris Combs, special agent in charge of the San Antonio field office, “One of the biggest advantages for the partnership is the direct avenue to the FBI, building a relationship between organizations (fire serve and bureau) that traditionally don’t have a detailed relationship.”

As a task-force officer (TFO) out of the Atlanta field office, I support Combs’ testimony because of the outreach we provide to other organizations, including my home agency, in terms of WMD response and countless other counterterrorism efforts led by the FBI.

Atlanta is a target-rich metropolitan city with an infrastructure home to many robust assets, requiring my department to be fully engaged in homeland-security efforts. This couldn’t be accomplished without the partnership of the FBI’s Atlanta field officer. The fire chief had the vision to take proactive steps to be engaged with nation’s lead law-enforcement agency in the prevention of terror attacks.

The San Antonio office has been training all San Antonio fire-department members on IED recognition and precursors, has consulted them on rescue task force development/operations and has provided a detailed briefing to the entire command staff on the FBI National Response Plan to an actual WMD device (Combs and Dowdell).

One of the advantages of having fire-service members on the JTTF is that it provides executive leadership with realtime information as it pertains to threats specific to one’s area of responsibility or jurisdiction. This information is priceless when fire chiefs and their executive staff must posture the department based on a threat nexus pertaining to protests with a possibility of civil unrest, such as special-event planning that can be target rich for terrorists, or when the chief needs realtime information quickly to brief elected officials on a subject raised unexpectedly.

In 2006, under former director Robert Mueller, the FBI formed the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, which created WMD coordinators in all 56 field offices. By order of presidential directives, the FBI is also the lead agency on all bioterrorism threats and incidents. The WMD coordinator is instrumental in providing outreach to emergency responders that have a vested interest in WMD response with a CBRNE nexus. The fire service has been providing the communities they serve with hazmat response since the 1980s, and since the introduction of bioterrorism, the fire service’s role in WMD response has been critical.

The IAFC partnered with the FBI in publishing a document in 2004, Model Procedures for Responding to a Package with Suspicion of a Biological Threat. This document provides fire-rescue departments with key guidelines and procedures for managing suspicious and unknown substances.

Members of the fire service on the JTTF who are trained in WMD response become the immediate liaison to first responders by providing important information and guidelines on how to handle the substances in question. This means that in certain situations a response can be expanded or reduced by the information shared by the responding agency and the TFO processing the call. The TFO can advise the local team handling on the proper field-screening needs to determine if the substance needs to go to a local-response network for further testing or be handled in a different manner. Often, the TFO will be the first FBI representative that first responders communicate with before the WMD coordinator getting involved.

Contrary to fire-service culture and beliefs pertaining to terrorism and homeland security, leadership has a vested interest in partnering with their local FBI field office to contribute in counterterrorism operations. Fire-service members can provide unique resources to the JTTF that can be critical to terrorism operations.

This includes but isn’t limited to:

  • strengthening the unified/incident command element
  • providing EMS recommendations to the FBI SWAT medics who are well versed in trauma but may lack the medical assessment skillset
  • contributing to a hazmat component beyond the training of the WMD response capability

Finally, firefighters are the boots on the ground in the community; suspicious-activity reporting can be instrumental in disrupting a potential terrorist plot when members are trained to recognize precursors to an attack.

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 (Hall 2017).

Partnering with the local FBI-JTTF can be one of the most valuable tools in the fire-service toolbox once executive leadership understands that the homeland can be more secure when taking the position “Left of Boom.” By committing members or engaging in partnership with the lead agency in combatting terrorist activity, the fire and emergency service becomes a huge asset in the homeland-security efforts, resulting in strong, resilient communities that we serve.

 

References

  • Robert T. Mahoney, “Threat-Based Response Patterns for Emergency Services: Developing Operational Plans, Policies, Leadership, and Procedures for a Terrorist Environment,” Homeland Security Affairs Journal 6, no. 3 (September 2010), HSAJ.org
  • Christopher Combs and Craig Dowdell, “Input from Your Fire Department TFOs and Your Comments,” n.d.

 

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