BY LARRY COLLINS
Following the 9-11 attacks, many people seemed inclined to focus exclusively on the threat of terrorism emanating from other lands (particularly the Middle East). This is a deadly mistake. While foreign terrorists are a huge concern, it is a colossal error (and a sign of serious naïveté) for firefighters to assume the threat of domestic terrorism has somehow been eliminated or is no longer a concern. Today there are many domestic terrorist groups and individuals operating within the borders of the United States. Many of these groups are fully intent on bringing down the government of the United States, some to establish a so-called “all-white” nation in the Northwest, others to bring in some other form of government more to their liking. And the members of some groups have already demonstrated their willingness to commit all manner of atrocities to achieve their goals.
Based on the current progression of terrorism, it’s obvious that the future will bring additional paradigms in terrorism in North America, including suicide bombers, the use of dirty bombs and other nuclear devices, the expanded use of secondary and tertiary explosive devices to wipe out fire/rescue professionals, and attacks aimed at provoking the government to respond in such a way as to cause a backlash leading to martial law and a possible civil war between citizens and the government.
It’s even possible that we may see unholy (and otherwise improbable) alliances—far-right Christian extremists collaborating in various nations with radical Jewish or Islamic terrorists—to attack governments and targeted groups for whom they share lethal animosity. Such examples of cooperation between individuals and groups from opposite ends of the religious and political spectrum may have seemed preposterous just a few years ago, but one need only consider events listed in the daily newspapers to realize that the most improbable situations are sometimes possible when it comes to terrorism.
Some authorities have suggested that some radical domestic “Christian” terrorist groups might, at some point, find common ground in their opposition to certain U.S. government policies or agencies, or in their opposition to certain other groups. They might find it advantageous to collaborate with Middle Eastern Islamic terrorist cells and adopt some of their tactics to attack the government and other groups they intensely dislike.
Consider, for example, a situation unfolding in Germany at the time of this writing. In 2002, German officials indicated they had uncovered evidence that certain far-right German Nazi extremist groups are showing increasing support for the activities of radical Muslim terrorist groups and their collaborators and fund-raisers. It’s general knowledge that the 9-11 attacks were cheered equally by many neo-Nazis and Islamic extremists, who view the world as being controlled by Jewish groups whose will is enforced by the U.S. military.
As reported in the Los Angeles Times on January 3, 2003, Udo Voigt, chairman of Germany’s far-right National Democratic Party, showed his support for radical Islamic groups through activities such as attending speeches by leaders of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic organization identified as “dangerous” by German authorities. Voigt and his cronies also support Ahmed Huber, a Swiss far-right extremist who is calling for closer ties with Muslim radicals and is suspected to be linked to Al Qaeda.
In a 2002 interview on German television, Voigt told a university crowd, “I think I speak in the name of all German nationalists when I say, if it comes to a great clash (between civilizations), we will not stand at the side of America.”1
“The common ground they (far-right Christian groups and Islamic radicals) share is deep on two issues,” said one Western diplomat in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “They cannot tolerate the existence of Israel, and they share a conspiracy theory that the United States wants to control the Middle East and the world’s energy supply. It’s a very paranoid world view, but they share it deeply.”
Now consider the recent case of the Montana Militia, whose leaders were arrested in February 2002 and charged with planning to kill as many judges, prosecutors, police officers, and firefighters as possible to provoke the state to activate the National Guard. The group, billing itself as Project Seven, was found to have amassed 30,000 rounds of ammunition and hundreds of weapons, as well as intelligence on the personal lives and the comings and goings of police officers, firefighters, prosecutors, and judges (and their families), who were on hit lists found in the leaders’ homes. According to investigators, Project Seven members planned to attack and kill National Guardsmen and other law enforcement officials who would be dispatched to Montana in response to the murders. According to documents seized during raids, the group ultimately intended to ignite a domestic war that would topple the federal and state governments.
Groups like Project Seven can no longer be considered isolated cases or anomalies unlikely to replicate. The fact is, domestic terrorism groups have sprouted across many parts of the United States, and they are fully prepared to take many innocent lives. The Oklahoma City bombing proved that beyond any doubt. Some of the domestic terrorist groups may lie low for a period of time after events like the 9-11 attacks. But inevitably some of these groups will surface to strike out against the government when things quiet down. Or they may establish yet another new paradigm by conducting terrorism when the government appears most vulnerable, such as in the immediate aftermath of major attacks by foreign groups.
Based on these and other examples, only the very naïve among us would discount the potential for dangerous sects of far-right groups, like the Nazis, to find common ground with radical Islamists in their animosity toward the United States and other Western powers that promote freedom and democracy. No one should be surprised if they find it pragmatic to consolidate their efforts to attack Western targets to accomplish their sometimes divergent goals.
WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION AND RESCUE OPERATIONS
Many antiterrorism programs have been narrowly focused on potential biological and chemical attacks to the exclusion of the ever-present danger of (increasingly) likely scenarios such as conventional explosives and nuclear attacks (including so-called dirty bombs that use conventional explosives to contaminate victims, firefighters, EMS personnel, police officers, civilian rescuers, and property with radioactive materials).
It’s interesting to note that many fire departments increased their readiness to manage the consequences of structural collapse just as they began turning in their civil defense radiological monitoring devices after the fall of the Berlin wall and collapse of the Soviet Union (and the supposed end of the threat of nuclear attack). The potential for terrorists to obtain and use nuclear materials (perhaps in combination with conventional explosives—dirty bombs) to attack U.S. targets apparently was not considered valid by emergency planners. Consequently, many of the nation’s first responders are left without reliable radiological monitoring capabilities. This is a huge tactical and strategic error that almost certainly will come back to haunt us.
An emerging terrorist threat is the potential use of dirty bombs, which can cause massive structural collapse and radiological contamination at the same site. Without radiological monitoring equipment, the first responders have no way to determine if there is a nuclear component to a terrorist bombing, nor are they capable of designating proper exclusion zones or determining how long they can safely operate in a contaminated area. Without dosimeters, first responders have no way of documenting their total exposure doses for a given emergency operation.
THINKING THE UNTHINKABLE
Francis Brannigan recently wrote in Fire Engineering, “We must learn to think the unthinkable; we must go beyond experience … to competent risk analysis.”
We can conclude that it was past time for wake-up calls even before the 9-11 attacks. And now, in the aftermath of the attacks, it’s time for the fire/rescue services to get serious about terrorism and for those who hold the purse strings to ensure that sufficient funds are allotted to ensure that first responders can do their job of protecting the public with some reasonable expectation of protection [including appropriate personal protective equipment to deal with nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threats]. It’s time for a sea change in the way fire departments train and prepare for potential terrorism; the preparation must take new and previously unfathomable forms. It’s time for fire departments to become more flexible and adaptable to fast-changing conditions and new paradigms.
Yet, in all too many cases, it remains “business as usual” in many fire departments, especially at the level of the first responders who will face imminent danger from future terrorist attacks. Since the 9-11 attacks, and as of this writing almost two years later, a paltry share of antiterrorism funding has been designated to properly equip firefighters, police officers, EMS workers, and other first responders to deal with the hazards posed by the new terrorist threats. And much of that money will be siphoned off to other places as it follows its inevitable course through a byzantine funding system.
PREPARING AND PROTECTING FIRST RESPONDER RESCUERS FOR TERRORISM ATTACKS
In March 1998, Battalion Chief Ray Downey of the Fire Department of New York’s Special Operations Command gave prescient testimony before Congress about the potential for terrorist attacks to take the lives of firefighters and other first responders. The intent of Downey’s speech was to give a first-hand account of the need for Congress to devote additional funding and support to programs to place personal protective equipment and training for WMD attacks in the hands of the nation’s firefighters.
“It is the first responder who will be facing the challenges that WMD present,” Downey testified. “Unless you have been there, you cannot fully appreciate what firefighters face during an incident of WMD terrorism.” Downey and hundreds of other firefighters, police officers, and other first responders were killed in the 9-11 collapse of the World Trade Center, the result of exactly the kind of massive terrorist attack that Downey warned this nation’s leaders to anticipate.
There is a saying that goes like this: “To counter terrorism, we must think like terrorists” (to anticipate their next moves and develop a purposeful and effective response). Today, it’s painfully evident that this is not happening. Many decision makers remain trapped “inside the box,” either unable or unwilling to strategize outside of it. The money necessary to address the true needs of first responders simply is not being directed to them. Instead, much of the nation’s antiterrorism funding is diverted to programs that will not provide timely consequence management.
Unless the decision makers address the true lessons learned from the 9-11 attacks, the future of terrorism will include waves of first responders’ confronting attacks for which they are unequipped and untrained to manage in a reasonably safe manner. Unless the whole of the fire/rescue service (as well as those who control funding for these public safety agencies) act decisively, first responders will share the fates of those 479 firefighters, police officers, and other first responders who perished in the World Trade Center attacks.
URBAN CANYONS AND WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION
The history of the United States is rife with attacks by various domestic groups and individuals who employed explosives, firebombs, sabotage, firearms, mail bombs, and even chemical and biological agents. In an open society like ours, it’s nearly impossible to prevent every act dreamed up by the enemies of freedom, the deranged, and the evil. Despite the variety of weapons used, explosives have always constituted the major threat. Terrorists often see explosions or other spectacular events like airplanes flying into buildings as dramatic statements of their power to disrupt our societies when they are aggrieved. Moreover, explosive attacks create moments in time and instants of terror that few witnesses will forget.
In terms of potential for structural collapse and other consequences that would require the use of urban search and technical rescue resources, bombings (including nuclear devices and dirty bombs) appear to be the most potent and prevalent threat. According to the State Department and the Justice Department, bombs have been—and remain—by far the most common weapons used in terrorist attacks in the United States. Domestic and international terrorists and groups favor explosive devices. Bombs are used with ever-greater frequency to settle personal conflicts in the home and at work. In the United States, the most frequently used explosive devices are pipe and other small bombs. In California alone, more than 400 pipe bomb incidents are reported each year. Since 1990, the incidence of pipe bombings has increased by more than 50 percent.
Explosive devices are of special concern because people who lack a great deal of technical expertise or resources can build them. The materials required to produce 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, luggage, and other items for which the index of suspicion normally would be low. Larger ones may be hidden in cars, trucks, airplanes, trains, ships, and cargo containers. Powerful bomb blasts can bring down large buildings, bridges, dams, mountainsides, and other large structures that can entrap many people in their collapse rubble. Rescue and recovery would require round-the-clock operations employing sophisticated urban search and rescue resources for many days.
Beyond their banter about being “freedom fighters” or martyrs, there is something unmistakably narcissistic about people who plan many of the worst terrorist attacks—especially those who send others to do the dirty work while they slink back into the shadows and observe from a place of safety. We see it in the egocentricity that allows them to target entire populations of “nonbelievers,” including civilians, as free game for attack.
Unfortunately (but not unpredictably), many of these egos are drawn to the spectacular. It is perhaps a form of narcissism mixed with other traits. This is not to say that they’re not dedicated to their particular causes; it would be a mistake to forget that many terrorists are indeed true believers in their causes and that they will do almost anything to impose their views on others. That—combined with ego—is the reason we must be prepared for ever-more spectacular forms of terrorist attacks. Today the most destructive threat is probably a nuclear device, one of the few true weapons of mass destruction. One would be naïve—perhaps even negligent, given the course of recent events—to discount the potential for one or more nuclear devices to be detonated in the West in the foreseeable future.
What are the greatest terrorism-related threats? Unfortunately, we have already witnessed the “successful” use of airplanes, tanker trucks, and other common forms of transportation as portable weapons to wreak havoc that sometimes requires massive urban search and rescue operations that last for days or weeks to deal with the destruction and trapped victims. The potential for additional foreign and domestic terrorist attacks using these modes remains high because terrorists see these attacks as being successful. As of this writing, we have yet to see trains, ships, or shipping containers used as bombs, but it would be naïve to rule out the potential for terrorists to “graduate” to that next level of destruction.
Geoff Williams, fire master of the Central Scotland Fire Brigade, has for years warned about the need for fire/rescue agencies in various nations to be prepared for catastrophic events such as earthquakes and huge detonations by terrorist groups that create “urban canyons,” events that leave entire sections of a city slashed to bedrock, with surrounding buildings as the canyon walls.
For years Williams was a voice in the wilderness on this issue, because it was difficult for many fire/rescue officials to imagine an event with such force that would create such an urban canyon. But now, we have all seen an urban canyon in the form of the 9-11 attacks on New York, and it’s a certainty that—even as you are reading this—some terrorist or terrorist organization is plotting, discussing, or dreaming about an event that will make the World Trade Center attacks look like a foreshock preceding something even bigger, perhaps in one or more different cities in the United States or some ally nation. And certainly, there is the ever-present potential for a catastrophic earthquake to cause similar, if not worse, destruction in some cities.
THE ROLE OF RESCUE IN TERRORISM CONSEQUENCE MANAGEMENT
Why is this an important issue for firefighters and rescuers everywhere in the civilized world? The answer is simple: The methods of attack being used by modern terrorists are often intended to inflict massive damage and casualties, sometimes bringing down large iconic structures that will be full of people. Rescue is an important feature of “consequence management” because the largest and most deadly terrorist attacks in modern history have essentially resulted in urban search and rescue disasters that required days, weeks, and even months of intensive, large-scale, and highly dangerous collapse search and rescue operations.
To be sure, the response to terrorist attacks may also require the use of multicasualty treatment and transportation systems, hazardous materials response units, firefighting resources, incident management teams, and other fire department-based capabilities. It’s true that terrorist groups are capable of using chemical, radiological, and biological materials in attacks on civilians, but it’s also true that more than 80 percent of terrorist attacks around the world involve the use of explosives, which translates to potential structure collapse that can trap victims and require the use of urban search and rescue resources.
Today, we know that some terrorist groups are intent on committing even larger and more deadly atrocities, including multiple attacks on large structures and public assemblies. Some terrorist groups are considered capable of and willing to use small nuclear devices and other methods to create “urban canyons” that would make the World Trade Center collapses look small by comparison.
The nature of modern terrorism—and its root causes—makes it clear that rescuers and firefighters will be confronted with ever-more horrific events in the years to come and that now is the time to prepare for situations that were inconceivable to most first responders just a decade ago. There is a new paradigm in radicalized religious terrorism, particularly Islamic terrorism. But this rabid new brand of terrorism is not limited to the radicalized Islamists who have corrupted their own religion. Radical Christians like Timothy McVeigh, his co-conspirator(s), and others have also committed heinous acts of domestic terrorism. And we can find examples of terrorist acts by domestic and international perpetrators who profess allegiance to any number of other religions and causes, who continue to conduct terror campaigns in hot spots around the world.
The questions are the following: How does the fire service plan and prepare for such an event? and How will fire departments manage the consequences when it happens? Fortunately (if the word fortunate can be used here), there is an answer to these questions. We need to employ the same basic strategies and resources we used to manage the consequences of other terrorist attacks and earthquake disasters. Only we would have to do it more quickly, on a much larger scale, with many more resources, with much better coordination, and for much longer periods of time.
The downside is that we may suffer many more casualties among first responders and perhaps also among secondary responders. But, the point is this: We handle the consequences and do not allow the evil of men or the capriciousness of nature to overcome us. This means that fire chiefs; company officers; firefighters; and rescue, haz-mat, and EMS specialists must be prepared to quickly expand the scope of their operations in the aftermath of such an event, even if we are employing the same basic strategies and tactics to handle the individual and composite problems that will confront us.
Rescuers will still do rescue. They will just do much more of it, for a much longer period of time. Urban search and rescue teams will still conduct US&R operations using the five stages of structure collapse search and rescue, but they will just do it on a much larger scale. FEMA US&R Task Forces (trained and equipped to operate in weapons of mass destruction environments) will still be deployed, but they will probably be reinforced by US&R teams from other nations.
We will still employ the concepts of the incident command system (or SEMS, Standard Emergency Management Systems), LCES (Lookouts, Communication, Escape Routes, Safety Zones), structural triage, medical triage, risk-vs.-gain decision making, personnel accountability, operational retreat, and rapid intervention. We will do it on a scale that was not imagined just a decade ago. If radiation or other poisons contaminate the urban canyon and surrounding areas, there may be a need for wholesale evacuation. But, we will determine the perimeter, contain the area, do what we can to reduce casualties, and handle the problem. If command-level leaders are lost, there will be a succession plan based on ICS principles. In short, the problems associated with an urban canyon event are ultimately manageable.
Before the 9-11 attacks, the only terrorist attack on American soil comparable to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks was the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995. Today we have been thrust into an entirely new paradigm of terrorism. The 9-11 attacks shocked the world and the fire/rescue services into recognizing the growing dimensions of modern terrorism. Particularly in the United States, where we for so long had felt somewhat immune to terrorism, there is a deeper understanding that the fire/rescue services must change the way they do business. The U.S. fire/rescue services must start looking with greater interest at the lessons already learned by firefighters and rescuers in places like Israel, Ireland, Scotland, England, South Africa, and other places that have experienced domestic and international terrorism of the sort likely to occur in the United States in the coming years.
1. Fleishman, Jeffrey, “East, West Radicals Find Unsettling Bond,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 3, 2003.
2. Brannigan, Francis, “Laminated Beams and Arches,” Ol’ Professor, Fire Engineering, Nov. 2001.
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 (US&R) Task Force and serves as a US&R specialist on the “Red” FEMA US&R Incident Support Team. He is a frequent instructor at FDIC and FDIC West and the author 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).
LEVELS OF PERSONAL PROTECTIVE GARMENTS
The advent of nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) agents used in terrorist attacks makes it necessary for firefighters and rescuers to seriously consider the level of protection offered by their personal protective equipment (PPE). This has become a prominent issue in the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks, which have placed firefighters, EMS personnel, and other rescuers in situations where they were vulnerable to the effects of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) agents. The 9-11 World Trade Center attacks crystallized the risk to firefighters, police officers, EMS personnel, and other rescuers.
The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) defines critical infrastructures of the emergency services as “those physical and cyber assets that are essential for the accomplishment of missions affecting life and property. They are the people, things, or systems that will seriously degrade or prevent survivability and mission success if not intact and operational.”1 Included in the category of critical infrastructures are firefighters/rescuers/paramedics; fire and EMS stations, apparatus, and communications; Public Safety Points (or 9-1-1 communications centers and their personnel), and so on. So it’s apparent that the protection of the health and safety of firefighters, rescuers, EMS personnel, haz-mat personnel, and others who respond to rescue-related terrorist attacks has been designated as a priority.
What does this mean to you, the firefighter or rescuer? To begin, it means that you should be wearing the appropriate attire when responding to an actual or threatened terrorism event. The trouble is that this is (relatively speaking) a newly recognized issue as it relates to WMD and NBC agents. There is debate about what constitutes appropriate personnel protective garments for first responders dealing with the consequences of modern terrorism.
There is even more debate about who will fund the research, development, and procurement of the personal attire required to operate effectively in WMD/NBC-contaminated environments. Consequently, as of this writing, the typical first responder simply does not have access to the appropriate level of PPE required to ensure a reasonable degree of safety and health when dealing with the aftermath of a WMD-related terrorism attack.
1. U.S. Fire Administration Web site (www.usfa.fema.gov/dhtml/fire-service/cipc.cfm).