During the Crusades, a battle between the Crusaders and the Muslim Saracens was announced with much pomp and circumstance. In the Third Crusade, Richard the Lionheart’s heralds would blow their trumpets and parade his great banner of the golden rampant lions. Saladin would begin with the pounding of massive kettle drums, often mounted on a camel, as his bravest amirs would carry forward the green flags of the Prophet.

In the new war between extremist Muslims and the West, there is no such medieval panoply and fanfare to announce the opening of a battle. Sometimes people are casualties before they even know that a battle has commenced. It was this way the day Osama bin Laden decided to bring his brand of Islamic holy war to the homeland of the United States on September 11, 2001.1

Recent events make it obvious that modern terrorism is evolving to a state where the level of barbarism knows no boundaries. Firefighters and rescuers are well advised to take heed and maintain proper vigilance. The fire service is confronted with new paradigms in terrorism, beginning with the emergence of domestic and international terrorists with the means to mount attacks with the potential for incredible lethality. The terrorists are guided by a doctrine that makes it acceptable (and even inviting) to inflict huge civilian and rescuer casualties. Some foreign and domestic groups have adopted the “leaderless cell” and “sleeper cell” modes of operation, making it all the more difficult for law enforcement agencies to locate and disarm them.

Consequently, the fire service will be confronted with attacks that have ever more lethal results for citizens and rescuers. It didn’t take the 9-11 disasters to alert observant fire/rescue professionals to this new fact of life. The signs have been there for all to see since events like the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in East Africa. In 1995, in a published article on urban search and rescue (USAR) operations at the Oklahoma City bombing, I noted the following:

The Oklahoma City bombing, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and other recent terrorist incidents dramatically demonstrated that urban terrorism has arrived on the shores of the United States. Practically any city or town may be the target of terrorists with a wide variety of agendas. These developments should be of grave concern to the Fire Service, whose members are generally first on scene and, therefore, extremely vulnerable to secondary attack (a common terrorist tactic more commonly seen in other parts of the world), secondary collapse due to structural instability, and other life hazards. The potential for terrorism raises the specter of future incidents in which massive damage is inflicted upon large, multi-story buildings.

This is not the first time United States governmental facilities have been targeted by terrorists. The Oklahoma disaster was preceded in the 1980s by the equally horrendous bombings of the Marine compound and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Unfortunately, there were no FEMA USAR task forces available to help during those incidents. Today, United States embassies and other government buildings in other nations are under constant threat of terrorist bombings. The possibility of further domestic terrorism must be taken seriously by the Fire Service.2

For firefighters and rescuers, the drive toward ever more spectacular and lethal terrorist attacks means that yet another new paradigm has been reached: Future attacks by some groups will be designed to leave more innocent victims trapped in collapsed buildings or stranded by uncontrollable fires that leave firefighters with no choice but to make a desperate last attempt. Our response to some future attacks will be complicated by multihazard devices like “dirty bombs” that spread radioactive contamination after being dispersed by conventional explosives powerful enough to collapse large buildings. Some attacks will trap people in other predicaments that will require extensive rescue operations to save lives and recover the dead in a respectful manner.

Because terrorism attacks of the new paradigm may require massive, multiagency, rescue-oriented response to locate and remove multitudes of missing and trapped victims, local fire/rescue resources may be overwhelmed, and large segments of the nation’s state and federal USAR assets may be required to deal with the consequences of one large attack or simultaneous attacks.


The 9-11 attacks, which caused a nationwide shutdown of commercial air traffic and a slowdown in the military-based aerial transportation of some FEMA USAR task forces traveling West to East3 (another new paradigm), demonstrated the need to consider alternate plans such as staging international USAR teams within the United States to augment the remaining USAR resources during the aftermath of a major attack. This would be a first for a nation accustomed to managing disasters of every size and shape without the need for outside assistance. For the first time, a terrorist attack (or a series of attacks) could cause the deployment of international USAR teams—and possibly other emergency resources—within the United States (yet another new paradigm).

Fortunately, the U.S. government, through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), has for years participated in international urban search and rescue planning, coordination, training, and response. The United States (through the USAID/OFDA) is one of more than 60 participating member nations of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), under the umbrella of the United Nations (see and select “UNDAC/INSARAG” for additional information about these pioneering international efforts).

Through this process, internationally deployable USAR teams are being standardized based on internationally agreed-on criteria. USAID/OFDA coordinates the preparation and response of two internationally deployable USAR task forces [from the Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue Department and County of Los Angeles Fire Department (LACoFD)]. Furthermore, USAID/OFDA helps facilitate the development of USAR teams in nations throughout the Americas and other continents. These efforts, originally aimed at enhancing response to earthquakes, will prove important if U.S. fire and rescue agencies needed USAR teams from other nations to assist if terrorist attacks of a great magnitude were to occur in this country.


Because both domestic and international terrorists have demonstrated their increasing willingness to target first responders as well as citizens, incident commanders responding to a possible attack must consider tactics and strategies born of decades-long experience with such terrorism attacks in places like Ireland, Scotland, London, Israel, Spain, and elsewhere. Included in the Incident Action Plan for a possible terrorist attack must be some contingency for rapid intervention operations to locate and rescue firefighters and other first responders who become lost, trapped, or injured by the detonation of a secondary device.

Effectively managing the rescue-related consequences of modern terrorism is particularly important for reasons that may not be immediately evident to the first responder. We all know that the primary mission of fire departments responding to a terrorist attack is to save lives. This is accomplished by taking the necessary steps to ensure a reasonable level of training and personal protective equipment and a well-thought-out plan of action so that firefighters can locate and rescue victims without delay, extinguish fires that threaten trapped victims, and treat and remove the injured. This is, in its most basic form, consequence management through effective rescue in the aftermath of a terrorist attack.

But there is another sometimes little under- stood reason that effective fire/rescue response is so important, and it’s based on our understanding that one important goal of the terrorists is to send messages, demoralize the public, change a political reality on the ground, or destabilize governments by creating havoc and insecurity, which can lead the populace to question the government’s ability to protect public safety. Consequently, if the fire/rescue response to a terrorist attack is (or appears to be) haphazard, chaotic, and ineffective, the effect on the morale of the public may be devastating and lead to even darker consequences. A chaotic and unreasoned emergency response would essentially play into the hands of the terrorists and give them a sort of “double victory” that we must be prepared to deny them.

Conversely, if the fire/rescue response is massive, rapid, and orderly; is characterized by an unbowing and resolute spirit of determination and cooperation among the firefighters and rescuers and other emergency responders; and results in timely control of the incident, then the terrorists are denied a victory. True, they may have inflicted damage, but they are denied the relative and temporary advantage of proving they can cause panic, social chaos, and demoralization. This is one of the most powerful lessons learned from the response to terrorist acts like the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the 9-11 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of 2001: When the spirit and dedication to mission of the fire department and other public safety agencies remain unbroken and when the firefighters and rescuers continue to demonstrate willingness to do their jobs no matter what comes their way, it sets the stage for the public to do the same.


A pressing concern for firefighters and incident commanders is the ever increasing frequency with which they are confronted by explosive devices and other dangerous weapons during incidents that appear (on the surface) to be “routine.” Firefighters can anticipate more bombs, booby traps, and other dangerous weapons for which there may be no outward warning signs. Recent examples include firefighters’ finding booby-trapped apartments during fireground operations; Los Angeles City firefighters who encountered a large fuel and ammonium nitrate bomb after extinguishing a fire in the back of a burning truck in the parking lot of an Internal Revenue Service building; Kansas City firefighters who were killed when an intentionally set fire caused the detonation of explosives at a construction site; Bakersfield, California, firefighters who narrowly escaped death when a bomb exploded inside a burning passenger van; and people injured by a series of pipe bombings in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Nebraska. And then there were the 9-11 attacks in which occupied passenger jets were essentially used as incendiary missiles. In short, there is no end to the combination of otherwise “benign” circumstances in which firefighters may be confronted by explosive devices and other weapons of mass destruction.


Sometimes it’s not a group but an individual who presents the most danger. One example is Ted Kazinski, the so-called Unabomber. He favored using small explosive devices sent to targeted individuals (ignoring, of course, the fact that innocent employers, spouses, or bystanders might also be killed). Many other makers of small bombs are out there; they present a tremendous danger to their intended victims and to fire/rescue personnel.

According to the U.S. State Department and the Justice Department, bombs are by far the most commonly employed device used in terrorist attacks. In addition, they are being used with greater frequency to violently settle personal conflicts at home and in the workplace. In the United States, pipe bombs and other small explosive devices are most frequently used. In California alone, an average of more than 400 pipe bomb incidents are reported each year. Since 1990, the incidence of pipe bombings has increased by more than 50 percent in that state.

Pipe bombs and other “simple” explosive devices are of special concern because they can be built by people who do not have a great deal of technical expertise. The materials required to produce these bombs are readily available to the public. And even crudely made explosive devices may be used with deadly accuracy. Powerful bombs may be hidden in mailboxes; small packages; and other normal household and recreational items for which the index of suspicion normally would be low.

A case in point occurred on April 29, 1997, when LACoFD personnel were dispatched to rescue an unconscious woman from the beach at the base of a rocky coastal cliff and found themselves face-to-face with a powerful bomb in disguise. I was the duty captain of the USAR company assigned to that incident. The homemade bomb was concealed in an Igloo cooler next to the waterlogged, unconscious victim we were attempting to rescue.4

The bomb was discovered only after unsuspecting LACoFD firefighters picked up the cooler to make room to package and treat the victim (who was also about to become a suspect/subject). As we were preparing to move the victim away from the waves, one firefighter noticed wires protruding from beneath the lid; he alerted the others.

Adding to the mystery, we also discovered a loaded gun in the back pocket of the victim’s seawater-soaked jeans, as well as a cache of black powder and a flare gun stashed in the nearby rocks. She eventually slipped into cardiac arrest and was resuscitated and revived by firefighter/paramedics in the back of an LACoFD helicopter en route to the trauma center at Harbor General Hospital.

It was later determined that the victim was in fact a male former military bomb expert in the process of having a sex change who apparently had built a substantial bomb in the cooler for purposes that have yet to be divined. This patient later was charged with threatening to bomb the very hospital that helped save his life.

Although it more closely resembles a movie plot than an actual emergency, this technical rescue operation-cum-mystery and terrorist threat is archetypal of a seemingly benign situation that ultimately reveals a nature and hazards quite different from those suspected from the first outward appearances: a seemingly “innocent” rescue that very nearly turned deadly for unsuspecting firefighters and emergency room staff.

Perhaps the key word here is unsuspecting. Until the moment we noticed multicolored wires dangling beneath the closed lid of the cooler, my colleagues and I assumed that the principal hazards were the high cliffs and the pounding surf that hemmed us in. We assumed that the primary problems would be treating and packaging a patient who was slipping into full cardiac arrest after apparently having been washed up on the beach; conducting a rope rescue operation or a helicopter extraction; and transporting the patient to a trauma center. None of us—least of all the firefighter who moved the cooler to get better access to the victim—suspected we might be standing next to a powerful bomb (which, hours later, would toss rocks into the air when detonated under controlled conditions by sheriff’s department bomb squad members).

More recently, as U.S. troops were amassing to conduct Operation Iraqi Freedom, the LACoFD responded to a four-story courthouse where smoke and fire were reported in the early morning hours on a weekend. First-arriving units discovered one “set” fire as they made their fire attack. Then they discovered another intentionally set fire, and then another and another. This is an example of a seemingly “benign” fire/rescue situation that could hold the unseen potential for primary and secondary explosive devices, the release of harmful substances, or some other form of terrorist attack. It is another example of why we should not take anything for granted on the fireground or the rescue scene, and especially in potential terrorist targets such as courthouses and other government buildings. Whoever set these fires appears to have been serious, and who is to say that such a person (or group) would refrain from rigging a building with multiple “set” fires to draw firefighters and other officials into the blast area of an explosive device?

The lesson here is that firefighters and other rescuers would be well served by employing a higher index of suspicion when confronted with situations that even hint at the unusual. And we should certainly develop a more acute awareness of our physical, social, political, and emergency surroundings, remaining aware of conditions that are ripe with the possibility of multiple forms of terrorist attacks from domestic and international sources. If we fail to do this, we will surely lose more firefighters and rescuers in the coming years from the consequences of terrorist attacks.


As the primary responders to terrorist attacks, firefighters must look far beyond the obvious when planning for (and responding to) acts of terror. Today, being extra vigilant to the winds of change and adopting a doctrine of “thinking outside the box” are mere starting points for progressive fire/rescue departments.

After the events of 9-11, and considering the wide-ranging terrorist acts and threats that have since emerged, it’s very clear firefighters and other rescuers must start thinking very far “outside the box.” Firefighters and officers responding to airline crashes, explosions, suspicious objects, and other unusual emergencies must approach these events with a higher index of suspicion for terrorism (including the potential for secondary devices or attacks) than in the past. We must seriously consider scenarios that might have been dismissed as preposterous just a decade ago.

The best way to ensure that firefighters and rescuers can meet the goal of denying victory to terrorists is to be aware of the potential hazards and to be prepared to manage them.


1. Murphy, John F. Jr., Sword of Islam: Muslim Extremists from the Arab Conquests to the Attack on America. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002), 235.

2. Collins, Larry, “Report from CATF-2,” NFPA Journal, Third/Fourth Quarter, 1995.

3. The shutdown of U.S. airspace also threatened to delay an East-to-West return of USAR task forces and other emergency resources if it had become necessary to move some of them to the West Coast in case of a major earthquake or a secondary attack on some Western state—yet another new paradigm..

4. Collins, Larry, “A Close Call,” Fire Engineering, August 1997.

LARRY COLLINS, a member of the County of Los Angeles Fire Department (LACoFD) for 23 years, is a captain, USAR specialist, and paramedic assigned to USAR Company 103. He is a search team manager for the LACoFD’s FEMA/OFDA Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Task Force and serves as a USAR specialist on the “Red” FEMA USAR Incident Support Team. He is a frequent instructor at FDIC and FDIC West and the author of the rescue chapter of the Fire Chiefs Handbook (sixth edition) and of the upcoming book Rescue: A Guide to Urban Search and Technical Rescue (Fire Engineering).



Through the ages, there have been occasional instances where suicidal or combined suicidal/homicidal attacks and retreats have been used as potent weapons against enemies of various peoples and states. In certain periods, as in the present case of the Palestinian murder/suicide bombers, it became acceptable or even venerable to perpetrate acts of self-destruction melded with the slaughter of innocents and potential combatants. Only the most naïve members of the fire/rescue services would delude themselves into believing that these tactics will not spread to the United States and other civilized nations that have not yet experienced their effects.

Consider that Americans and other Westerners abroad have been attacked numerous times in recent years and that the trend shows no sign of ending soon.

  • In April 1983, a member of the terrorist group Islamic Jihad drove a 400-pound truck bomb right into the U.S. embassy compound in Beirut and destroyed it. Sixty-three people, including the CIA’s Middle East Director, were killed. The Jihad was trying to dislodge the U.S. military from its peacekeeping role in Lebanon.
  • On October 23, 1983, Islamic Jihad struck again in Beirut. Two homicide/suicide truck bombers drove their mobile bombs into French and American military compounds, causing huge explosions that collapsed multistory, reinforced concrete barracks. Two hundred forty-one U.S. servicemen lost their lives, and many were trapped alive. Fifty-eight French soldiers were killed. The soldiers searched for and extricated their comrades without many of the USAR resources now available and that have come to be considered standard response in modern collapse rescue disasters.
  • Two years later, the radical Islamic group Abu Nidal dispatched homicide/suicide squads to the Rome and Vienna international airports. They tossed grenades and sprayed the crowds in the airport lobbies with machine guns before they were killed. Twenty people were killed. Many nations were forced to position armored personnel carriers, tanks, and other military assets at their international airports.
  • Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and continuing into the new millennium, the Tamil Tiger rebels of Sri Lanka have conducted more than 250 homicide/suicide missions in their war for an independent state.
  • Two U.S. embassies and adjacent buildings in East Africa were ripped apart by homicide/suicide bombers, who struck within minutes of one another in a coordinated attack linked to the Al Qaeda. The resulting structural collapses killed hundreds and required the response of international urban search and rescue teams from the United States, Israel, France, and other nations.
  • On October 12, 2000, homicide/suicide bombers maneuvered a skiff right up to the side of the U.S. destroyer Cole in the Port of Aden (in Yemen) and detonated a bomb; 17 U.S. servicemen died, and 39 were injured.

In the past 12 months, terrorist attacks in Bali, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and other places have specifically targeted Westerners and Israelis, and as of this writing there are stringent warnings about the potential for additional terrorist attacks in a wide variety of nations.

For decades, Israelis have been the targets of homicide/suicide bombings that continue to this day and show no sign of ending soon. For firefighters, rescuers, and officers who took the time and effort to understand the evolution of terrorism and who have tracked the modern trend toward more deadly homicide/suicide attacks, it came as little surprise when foreign terrorists imported suicide attacks to U.S. soil on 9-11. Although they may not have predicted the exact mode of attack (e.g., the hijacking of airliners to be used as flying incendiary bombs flown by the hijackers themselves), well-informed firefighters and rescuers had been anticipating terrorist attacks within our borders.

Only the very naïve will persist in believing that the 9-11 attacks were an anomaly. All of the evidence (for those who choose to study it) indicates that 9-11 was just the leading edge of what will become a wave of homicide/suicide attacks on U.S. soil in the coming years.

If the evolution of international terrorism is any indication, firefighters and rescuers in the United States will increasingly become the targets of secondary devices aimed at causing thorough chaos and panic at the scene of terrorist attacks. We have already seen at least one domestic terrorist target rescuers by using a secondary explosive device at an Atlanta, Georgia, abortion clinic. Soon, other domestic and international terrorists will find reason to employ the same tactics, which (in their eyes) have worked so well in places like Northern Ireland, Israel, Sri Lanka, and other places where terrorist groups have decided to take matters into their own hands.

For firefighters and rescuers (and their supervisors), the trend toward the increasing use of homicide/suicide tactics and secondary attacks creates a need for timely action and preparedness on a level that could scarcely have been seriously considered just a decade ago. The new paradigm of terrorism is already here. There is no need to wait until the next group of terrorists decide to take their own lives in the course of carrying out a murderous attack. There is no need to await the next secondary attack aimed at fire/rescue personnel. The time to recognize these hazards and make appropriate adjustments is now. U.S. fire/rescue agencies should adopt policies and protocols for these hazards without delay, and with the full support of the best minds and strategists.


1. Carey, Benedict, Method Without Madness? Los Angeles Times, July 20, 2002.

No posts to display