By Stuart K. Cameron, originally published April 2017
First responders have traditionally faced a variety of threats to their personal safety and well-being while in the performance of their duties. Some of these threats are largely discipline-specific, while others are more generic in nature, such as the hazards caused by moving traffic at an ongoing emergency scene. The risk of being struck by a vehicle is a threat to all responders working at a roadside incident.
Historically, law enforcement agencies have focused a great deal of their attention on preventing officers from being injured or killed during hostile encounters with individuals. Police officer training includes shooting tactics and accuracy, weapon retention, grappling, and the use of a variety of less lethal weaponry. Law enforcement officers are equipped with soft body armor, handguns, impact weapons, chemical agents, and often conducted energy devices to counter the threat of combative assailants.
Emergency medical service (EMS) providers face threats from disease transmission and therefore employ universal precautions to protect themselves from air and bloodborne pathogens. The donning of latex gloves prior to patient care has become second nature for EMS personnel. The handling of sharps, such as needles, is also a paramount concern during patient encounters for similar reasons. The risks posed by disease transmission to EMS workers received widespread attention during the recent Ebola virus disease outbreak when several healthcare providers became infected and proper personal protective protocols were debated extensively.
Firefighters have their own unique occupational hazards. The lack of breathable air at fire scenes because of toxic fumes or oxygen-deficient environments has been countered through training and the common usage of self-contained breathing apparatus. The risk of being burned is another ever-present danger, as is the hazard from falling debris and structural collapse. This is why standard firefighter gear includes helmets and fire-retardant turnout equipment.
Although there is some inherent overlap, much of the protective training and equipment provided to first responders is discipline-specific to protect them from the unique hazards they must face on a daily basis. As the perceived threat posed by terrorism increased in the United States, many first responders began to receive common training delivered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Preparedness Directorate. These training courses focused primarily on the response to a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) attack. Police, fire, and EMS personnel came together to learn about the hazards posed by chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive weapons because of concern that a terrorist group would use these types of weapons to attack the United States. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, additional funding was made available for this type of training, and agencies were able to train their personnel with no out-of-pocket costs. Much of this training encouraged interdisciplinary coordination and cooperation. For example, hazardous materials teams were encouraged to work with local public safety bomb squads to enhance the response to a potential dirty bomb. Public safety bomb squads were urged to work with local special weapons and tactics teams to counter multipronged attacks involving improvised explosive devices and small arms.
While much of this terrorism preparedness training was geared toward preparing first responders to deal with a large-scale mass casualty attack, similar in scope to those that occurred on 9/11 and potentially involving a WMD, another threat was also receiving attention. Around this same time, law enforcement agencies began to train their members to respond to active-shooter attacks using the newly developed concept of rapid deployment. As law enforcement agencies increased their preparedness to deal with active-shooter attacks, and these attacks became more frequent and devastating, response preparedness became focused on how best to handle casualty care. Quite often these casualties would be down in an area that was not stable and safe to enter. EMS workers who may opt to provide initial care to these victims would be exposing themselves to the threat of attack. Active-shooter incidents have involved prolonged sieges by active shooters, multiple attackers, explosive devices, and aerosolized irritants. Entering this type of environment is clearly perilous and not without personal risk.
Many law enforcement agencies have worked closely with EMS providers to address this issue. In some cases, law enforcement agencies have provided training in traumatic injury care to their police officers. In other instances, EMS workers have been trained tactically, and some have invested in soft body armor to protect their members. Regardless of the method selected to deal with this concern, enhanced cooperation between law enforcement and EMS is essential for an optimal outcome. Aiding the casualties created during an active-shooter attack creates a convergence of threats that would generally not otherwise cross discipline-specific lines.
As the terrorism threat to western nations has evolved and the prominence of ISIS has emerged, a transformation has occurred. ISIS has been extremely successful in inspiring followers using social media. This strategy has been complicated by the availability of mainstream encrypted communication platforms that have stymied law enforcement’s efforts to monitor much of this activity. Rather than plan and advocate solely for large-scale attacks, ISIS has been encouraging its supporters to attack using any means available to them. This rhetoric has taken hold with many, especially in Europe, and has been supplemented by publications such as Inspire magazine. Inspire, a publication of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has used a two-pronged approach, attempting to recruit followers while concomitantly providing step-by-step instructions on a variety of attack methods. Much like a home handyman may follow the instructions in a Popular Mechanics article, would-be terrorists have followed the instructions in Inspire with devastating success.
One such attack strategy is an ideal choice for would-be terrorist. It is relatively simple and inexpensive, it can be deployed with relatively little training and logistics, it is effective and lethal, it can overcome well-engineered defenses, and it consumes huge amounts of public safety resources to combat, all while being visually appealing for media coverage. While many of these factors could apply to the recent increase in vehicle-ramming attacks, all of them apply to the use of fire as a weapon.
Fire and Vehicles
Using vehicles as weapons to run people down has been a tactic employed by terrorists for many years with limited success. It has only recently been widely publicized because of the horrific attacks in France and Germany. Vehicle ramming is a tactic that has been advocated by both al-Qaeda and ISIS, including a full article devoted to this topic in the second edition of Inspire (“The Ultimate Mowing Machine”). It is quite clear that the tactic’s simplicity and recent efficacious use will encourage more attackers to employ this method in the future.
Fire is another tactic that has been employed in past attacks. It too has been discussed as a viable method to kill people in terrorist publications. While not terrorism related, fire was used with horrific success in March 1990, killing 87 people when an accelerant was used to start fires at a social club in New York City. In November 2008, terrorists used fire as a weapon during a multifaceted attack in Mumbai, India. Fire was one of many tactics used during this attack, complicating response operations and adding to the overall lethality of the event. Some of the most stunning media coverage of the Mumbai attack was the result of the fire that was set in the Taj Mahal Hotel during an ongoing hostage barricade situation. In the same vein as casualty treatment and extraction during an active-shooter attack, employing fire during a hostage barricade creates a convergence of threats and a situation that neither law enforcement nor firefighters are prepared to handle alone.
Prior to being widely publicized as a result of the severity of recent events, the strategy of using vehicles to attack people had been used in a number of locations around the world, including Israel. Israel has had great success reducing suicide bombing attacks by erecting the West Bank Barrier wall; however, the wall has reduced the opportunity and not the desire to attack Israelis. Terrorist groups have adapted, highlighted by a recent uptick in vehicle ramming attacks in Israel. Vehicle attacks can seemingly come out of nowhere because of their simplicity. In many instances, these attacks have proven to be equally effective in causing casualties when compared to prior suicide bombings.
In late 2016, a series of wildfires occurred in Israel, resulting in the destruction of numerous homes. Israeli authorities believe that these fires were intentionally started and motivated by terrorism. In the ninth edition of Inspire, an article entitled “It is of Your Freedom to Ignite a Firebomb” advocated starting brush fires as a viable attack strategy. In typical Inspire fashion, the article included details on creating ember bombs, which are timed incendiary devices. On January 6, 2017, ISIS released the fifth edition of its Rumiyah online magazine. One article in this edition suggests the use of arson attacks and lists a variety of potential targets for these attacks. Among the suggested locations are apartment buildings, nightclubs, and schools.
Much akin to the vehicle-ramming tactic, starting fires is simple and within anyone’s reach — even lone wolf attackers. One successful high-profile use of arson could spawn copycat attacks, much like the Nice, France, attack could inspire additional vehicle-ramming attacks. Should the use of fire as a weapon be adopted in any meaningful way, an unprecedented partnership between law enforcement and the fire service will be required to address it. Recently, one of the premier manufacturers of tactical law enforcement armored vehicles added a water monitor option to allow law enforcement to fight fires while under small arms fire.
As progress continues to be made ousting ISIS from Syria and Iraq, it is likely that foreign fighters will return home and those inspired to join the fight will instead launch attacks in their home countries. This effect will continue the threat of terrorism to western nations into the foreseeable future. Those bent on attacking the West will solicit input from terrorist publications, like Inspire and Rumiyah. They will seek out simple, effective, and hard-to-detect tactics such as vehicle ramming and the use of fire as a weapon. For municipalities that have not prepared, these attacks will appear to come out of nowhere.
As the adage says: If a tree falls in the forest with no one present to hear it, does it make any noise? In a similar fashion, if a terrorist attack occurs without widespread publicity, does it achieve its objective of terrorizing people? The attackers in Mumbai, India, in 2008 were guided by input from handlers in Pakistan. Much of the input was geared toward maximizing the ongoing media coverage of the event — thereby spreading the terror. One of the most visually effective and long-lasting tactics employed was the use of fire at the Taj Mahal Hotel. Fire can be used to kill people while also destroying property. It can be overlaid onto other attack tactics, dramatically complicating the response.
To get ahead of this issue, the fire service and law enforcement should cross train and exercise together. Firefighters should receive some tactical knowledge from their law enforcement partners while law enforcement should be apprised of basic firefighting tactics. Even a basic shared awareness level knowledge could be valuable during a multipronged attack employing fire. Law enforcement agencies should preidentify members who are volunteer firefighters, and volunteer fire agencies should be aware of members who serve in law enforcement. While the use of fire as an attack strategy may be simple for our adversaries, combating it will be vexing and difficult for first responders. Acknowledging the potential threat from weaponized fire is the first step. Planning, training, and exercising together will be crucial as our adversaries continue to look for simple, effective strategies to create terror.
Stuart K. Cameron is a 32-year veteran of the Suffolk County (NY) Police Department, currently serving as the chief of department. He has a master’s degree in criminal justice from SUNY Albany and attended the 208th session of the FBI National Academy.