Use Open Sources of Intelligence as a Preplanning Aid


Gathering information for fire department preplanning is challenging. Limited time and staff and sometimes a lack of facility cooperation are key factors, and preplanning can be time-intensive. But as onerous a task as it is, applying information-gathering practices learned back when developing high school term papers can yield great benefits.

Anyone who wants to learn more about a topic, a person, or a venue can seek, observe, and study open sources of information-i.e., those available to the public, such as a facility’s Web site. Open sources can yield a plethora of facility-specific information and basic intelligence. Before engaging on-site representatives to preplan the facility, fire department staff should do its homework by studying facility-, process-, or hazard-specific open sources.

Preplanning using only open sources does not constitute comprehensive preparedness, but it is one part of a balanced preparedness program. There is no substitute for obtaining detailed facility knowledge than through physically surveying it inside and out and talking to operational personnel. Intelligence gathering through open sources, however, does have its place in organizational preparedness. One benefit is that fire department personnel can gain a basic understanding of operations that they would otherwise only obtain on a facility visit. Understanding basic facility operations before engaging facility personnel may spur research into the associated product or process sources that will be valuable when physically reviewing facility internals such as layout and operational emergency procedures. Open resources are numerous and varied, but the most common and readily accessible include electronic media and periodicals.


A simple topical Internet search can yield a plethora of resource links, but carefully consider the source’s credibility and accuracy.

Web Sites

An official facility Web site, especially with a vague nondescriptive corporate name ending in Enterprises, Industries, Distributors, and Logistics, offers little or no clue as to the processes or potential hazards that exist there. Although other names may seem to be informative, don’t be complacent about degree of hazard. A business in my area was well-known for manufacturing closed-circuit security cameras. But only after a review of its Web site did its technological diversity embracing digital imaging, night vision, and nuclear instrumentation become known. This spurred further research into these technologies to identify supporting operations, processes, hazards, and challenges the site might present.

In addition to processes information, Web sites may provide illustrations and maps. The Web site of a large complex, such as a college campus, a shopping center, a convention center, or a hotel, will often have a map link for visitor use. Other facilities may include more detailed layouts and floor plans. Photo 1 shows a 600,000-square-foot warehouse, formerly used as a ceiling and floor tile distributor. Vacant for many years, it has been repurposed and renovated. Now, it is promoted as the largest indoor sports complex in the country and home to the United States Women’s Olympic Field Hockey Team. This once open-plan warehouse is continuously evolving with new attractions and features. Once a site operated by a dozen or so employees, it now hosts hundreds, even thousands, of visitors and patrons daily, presenting challenges to the local emergency services. Its Web site ( offers layout drawings and other data that the local emergency services can use to plan for possible incident scenarios and operational strategies.

photo 1
Photos 1-16 by author.

As mentioned earlier, nothing replaces physically touring and observing internal elements. However, the Web site drawings provide a layout vantage that first-due and mutual-aid departments may find useful.

Web sites may identify key staff and contact information that can be used to initiate preplanning efforts and certain operational details such as its hours of operation. Occupant information including census data or disposition types may be available, which is beneficial in contemplating potential search and rescue operations and resource needs.

Additionally, Web sites that list materials used, sold, or manufactured are beneficial for identifying physical and chemical properties. This, too, may aid chemical-specific research of material safety data sheets (MSDSs) as well as aid in contemplating incident management strategies ( Web sites can be a bounty of information.

Peer/Regulatory Web Sites

Explore peer and regulatory Web sites to identify issues related to situations or venues similar to those in your locale. The Chemical Safety Board (CSB), for example, conducts root-cause investigations of chemical accidents at fixed industrial facilities, identifying contributory factors and preventive measures that might likely have averted the accident. The CSB Web site ( provides free postincident resources in PDF reports and video illustrations that describe what happened and why it happened and lists future preventive recommendations. Reviewing the list of incidents and venues may reveal similarities to a facility protected by your fire department. This can lead to further research for lessons learned.


Although not as popular as they once were, print newspapers can be a valuable intelligence tool. Many print-media outlets have archives that may include articles on past incidents that may prove beneficial to newer fire department members or staff.

Newspapers usually publish a business section that highlights new business operations and activities, which may prove beneficial in fast-growing areas. Articles on new businesses may include information on hours of operation, an employee census, and other site- or product-specific information. Photographs can provide insight into what the fire department might expect.

Technical Reports

State and federal agency reports are another source of data for specific industries. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) may publish facility-specific reports on investigations into, violations found at, or citations issued to a facility during an inspection or for noncompliance issues revealed after a workplace fatality. A review of these reports by fire department officials may reveal process hazards inherent at certain industries similar to those protected locally.

A student of the fire service will study the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program’s line-of-duty death (LODD) investigative reports ( and the United State Fire Administration’s technical reports. Reviewing reports of incidents that occurred at venues similar to locally protected sites may heighten awareness to site-specific challenges. The disposition of the affected fire department or the region in which it occurred should not curtail review of LODD reports. Some may see opposing characteristics-e.g., one involved a volunteer vs. a career department or one occurred on the East vs. the West Coast-as making the incident inapplicable to local conditions. Contributing factors are often venue-specific-e.g., facility operations or internal systems. Could an industrial laundry facility fire in California to which a career fire department responded have similar inherent characteristics as a laundry on the East Coast that a small, all-volunteer fire department protects? Most likely, yes.

E-Source Convenience

The examples above are “behind-the-desk” open sources available at your fingertips from the comfort of your home or fire station office, at any time of the day or night. This type of intelligence gathering is convenient, cost-effective, and noninvasive. Although some may become comfortable and complacent with information collected from these sources, electronic and print material intelligence is only a piece of the preparedness puzzle.

Intelligence Culture

I cannot overstress the importance of physically gathering fire district intelligence, but the efforts dedicated to it are at times not proportionate to its importance. Comprehensive intelligence gathering, among other fire personnel tasks, may not have high priority. Some leaders and personnel may perceive intelligence gathering/preplanning as more of a chore rather than a critical operational function. In any area in which personnel see little value in a particular activity, they will offer excuses to justify noncompliance-e.g., the lack of time, money, or staffing. However, effective leaders and progressive management will creatively develop strategies for accomplishing goals.

Open-source examples are broad and readily available. As beneficial as “behind-the-desk” electronic sources can be, an effective preparedness program requires time commitments for physical surveillance. Preplanning and preincident intelligence include physically visiting a facility; engaging the facility’s personnel; and collecting, analyzing, and preparing information for postdispatch use. However, cost-effective and convenient practices are available to collect some basic, yet incident-critical, facility information when you have limited time and staff.

Windshield Intelligence

An effective means for gathering some basic intelligence, especially with time constraints, is promoting what I call “Two-Minute Intel” (TMI). Take two minutes to drive to and from another activity and survey a venue through the windshield, noting obvious conditions and challenging circumstances. This may reveal essential information to contemplate preincident for postdispatch application. Conduct TMI during and after facility operating hours to identify special conditions and challenges. TMI includes a windshield survey (WS) and a walk-around (WA). You could initiate a WS en route to a training session, returning from a call, traveling to and from refueling or maintenance, or in conjunction with other activities. You can identify many incident-influencing elements.

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