The Fire Service and Counterterrorism: Technology


Author’s note: My previous Fire Engineering articles in this series include “The Fire Service and Counterterrorism” (January 2006), which discussed the role the fire service can play in counterterrorism, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) color-coded threat level system and its implications for fire service response; and “The Fire Service and Counterterrorism: Unified Command” (with James M. McLoughlin, February 2006), which discussed developing an information/intelligence (INTEL) dissemination network and strategies to help the fire service win the war on terror. This article discusses how fire service equipment and personnel can aid in counterterrorism planning, preparedness, and deterrence.

When most of us think of fire service technology, we think of innovative tools used in search and rescue operations, such as thermal imaging cameras (TICs) used to locate victims and identify the seat of the fire. But they are also viable tools for assisting local, state, and federal law enforcement agents in counterterrorism operations. Most of our equipment is designed to work in harsh environments. Some fire service hazardous materials response teams mitigate and render safe methamphetamine laboratories before law enforcement evidence teams enter the crime scene. They could be deployed in a similar situation involving a terrorist clandestine weapons laboratory where law enforcement personnel would be exposed to the same hazards as at an actual weapons release. Hazmat response teams would perform the same functions at a weapons lab as they would during the meth lab incident. Many of our tools can work in a hazmat environment just as long as the law enforcement officers are willing to pay for decontamination and replacement if necessary.

But what if the law enforcement officer informed us that the counterterrorism scenario did not involve hostile environments or emergency response? Should we still be willing to try?

Below I discuss some of our most successful high- and low-tech tools that have a crossover use in counterterrorism operations. Hopefully, this will encourage the fire service to consider and develop additional ideas and techniques for such uses.


First you must understand counterterrorism concepts. For the fire service, counterterrorism operations are defined as follows: prevention of future terrorist attacks through detection of potential illegal activity and subsequent public safety deterrence of such suspected activity—in a word, vigilance.

Previous articles in this series focused on techniques and concepts to help prevent terrorist activity. Here, I focus on ways to work with local, state, and federal agencies to develop coherent lines of communication that will help detect and deter future attacks and how current and future technology can aid us in this vigilance role.

Detection and deterrence. The role of the fire service is not so much that of capturing and arresting terrorists but rather thwarting and deterring them, to enable law enforcement to capture them and at the same time hinder any potential for future operations. The strategy of foreign terrorists (specifically Al Qaeda and its affiliates) involves the simultaneous use of new and innovative weapons in attacking multiple targets across the United States.1 Coordinated simultaneous attacks require terrorists to plan extensively and operate in secrecy over an extended time. The longer and more elaborate the operation’s planning, the better the chance for discovery before the attack.

Some commercially available handheld radiation detection tools currently used at large public gatherings to help thwart terrorist attacks. [Photos courtesy of the Suffolk County (NY) Fire Marshal’s Office.]

These tactics were discovered in 2002 with the capture of an Al Qaeda operative who had been sent to New York City on a reconnaissance mission involving the Brooklyn Bridge. During his interrogation, he explained that his primary task was to gather intelligence concerning the targets, which were major bridges leading into and out of Manhattan. After completing his surveillance, the operative sent a coded message back to his superiors, indicating that the targets were too heavily protected for an attack.2

Similarly in 2007, terrorists planning to attack Fort Dix in New Jersey were arrested. The terror group had originally chosen another military base but could not proceed beyond the initial surveillance stage because the target was too well defended or hardened.

The lesson is threefold: (1) A terrorist operative first surveys the target’s security features and the personnel protecting it; (2) road blocks to a terrorist’s plans require him to communicate with others involved and reevaluate their plan before proceeding; and (3) the extra planning time terrorists require before an attack allows counterterrorism operatives more time to gather intelligence and possibly discover the plot, increase their vigilance, and prepare for any conceivable attack. Law enforcement would also have more time to gather intelligence, which, hopefully, will lead to the suspect’s apprehension. The cycle is self-perpetuating in our favor.

Although this is only one terrorist group’s strategy for attack, it is not unique to that group. Not all terror groups will be as elaborate in their attacks or as careful. For other terror groups, their planning cycle and the causes they endorse require immediate action. Most terrorists require immediate change to succeed and are not willing to work within the targeted nation’s political framework to achieve their goals. Terrorist groups desire to effect change through violence; preventing them from doing so successfully expedites their eventual demise. Historically, most terrorist organizations have died off without accomplishing their stated goals.3

The effectiveness of this method of thwarting an attack was also confirmed in 2004 and 2005 with the discovery of plans to attack the Washington, D.C., and New York City transit systems. Although successful attacks on mass transit have been carried out in Spain, Great Britain, Russia, and India, no such attacks have succeeded in the United States. Not only has this frustrated the terrorists’ efforts, it has also caused the loss of operatives, exposed their operational planning methods and techniques, and thus destroyed their operations security (OPSEC). In the New York City case, the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force foiled the terrorist plot to attack the subway system.4

Vigilance. Vigilance is the key to successfully deterring any local attack and requires active cooperation between the fire service and law enforcement. As discussed in previous articles, counterterrorism operations work on a “need-to-know” basis. We (the fire service) do not need to know everything. To maintain overall operational security, the fire service must have faith in our law enforcement partners that an assigned task needs to be done and that we do not need to know all the details.5

Our law enforcement counterparts must likewise understand that our resources are not to be squandered or frivolously misused. The fire service must stress that although we wish to help, we still have a primary job to do. This mutual trust must be developed and nurtured—it is essential in counterterrorism operations. Meeting with counterterrorism agencies in our jurisdictions is the best way to develop trust, show the role we could play, and outline the tools we can bring to the fight. We must specify and explain how fire service technology can benefit the counterterrorism effort; we must also point out our limitations. The same should be discussed about our staffing and training. This may lead to the first foundation of trust building, establishing joint training exercises and cross-training. Only by continuing to build on efforts through meetings and cross-training will joint operational capabilities be realized. By continuing to stress the need for operational security while remembering that terrorists will continue to look for new and innovative ways to overcome our countermeasures, we will stay ahead of the curve.


Fire service hazmat response teams have been a key component in responding to terrorist attacks, providing decontamination operations, rescue, hazardous condition detection, and weapons mitigation. They have responded to anthrax letter reports and “sick building” incidents, in which occupants complain about acute illness. Additionally, some fire agencies have had nonhazmat personnel undergo response training related to hazards specific to their jurisdictions. Target hazards such as petrochemical, radiation, and biological facilities have required certain fire companies and departments to become well-versed in responding to potential releases of these materials into the local environment.

Hazmat response teams. A hazmat response team helps deter terrorist attacks before they occur simply by their presence at any scheduled large-scale event. Would-be terrorists would interpret this as a hardening of a target and be deterred. Simply having fire service personnel in position, we assist security and deterrence teams while simultaneously conducting our stated mission.

Deploying our forces equipped with the detection technology that can discover the potential threats identified through intelligence gathering allows us to simultaneously conduct our regular operations—fire inspections, public assembly checks, and size-up—and also maintain counterterrorism vigilance. Which technology and trained personnel to deploy depends on the threats our law enforcement partners in counterterrorism have identified.

Remember, we receive our assignments from counterterrorism agencies; the information will flow mostly from them to the fire service. However, in the course of our regular duties, we may discover intelligence as well, because we may be aware of information that counterterrorism personnel are not. Passing this information on to our law enforcement partners allows them to apply our information to the overall threat matrix.

For example, we may know of an upcoming rally or similar event planned within our jurisdiction that will have security concerns for counterterrorism personnel. Pointing out these events and reminding our counterterrorism partners of our capabilities, we can build trust between the disciplines and also aid law enforcement in developing the necessary deterrence strategy. The fire service can assist law enforcement in deterrence by deploying our current and future technology at sites that are target-rich environments for terrorists.

The detection devices the fire service uses for fire mitigation can also be used in terrorism deterrence. Once again by building on mutual trust, the fire service must continue to work with the counterterrorism agencies in our jurisdiction to discuss potential, probable, and suspected terrorist targets. We must first look at the threats (as discussed previously in this series) and determine the threat potential, and then we will be able to identify the technology that could counter the threat.

Radiological detection devices. Radiological detection devices are among the most obvious counterterrorism technologies available from many fire departments and their hazmat response teams. They can easily detect the presence of improvised nuclear devices (IND) and radioactive dispersal devices (RDD); the quantities of radioactive material required to harm us or cause significant damage are easily measurable.

Most fire personnel are probably familiar with those bright yellow boxes, originally issued back in the 1950s by civil defense agencies. Although CDV 700 and 715 radiation detectors remain functional, these meters were originally designed to detect high levels of radiation associated with nuclear detonation. When properly calibrated, however, these detectors will continue to detect high radiation levels. But can they detect the lower radiation levels? Will these meters operate at the detection levels determined by our agency for actionable response?6

Many hazmat and related response teams have begun to upgrade their radiation detection devices with equipment that will detect levels as low as that of naturally occurring background radiation. These devices are reliable, reasonably priced, and often available to purchase through grants. The recent assassination of writer and former Russian KGB Colonel Alexander Litvinenko (using polonium 210) in the United Kingdom is one example of a situation in which fire department radiation equipment could be deployed to detect further threats and possibly thwart future attacks.7

In addition, the radiation detection devices with natural background reducer (NBR) capability carried by some hazmat response teams could be used to search parking lots of large public venues to spot potential weapons and possibly identify those who may have recently worked with or been subject to radioactive materials. Preplanning exercises using radiation equipment at large public venues and around industrial targets enables fire department personnel to establish these devices’ limitations and determine the best deployment methods. Documenting and mapping radiation monitoring results also establish baseline levels for any future deployments and monitoring.

For example, it is helpful to document areas that register above-normal background radiation (e.g., where there are large quantities of granite and other natural radiation sources, and areas around heavy industrial production or light industrial manufacturing). Surveying, documenting findings, and sharing this information with counterterrorism agencies help build trust. We should also engage law enforcement for assistance in developing protocols regarding what to do and whom to notify when above-normal levels are detected.

For example, the fire service could document normal radiation levels in and around self-storage and similar facilities with transient occupants and develop protocols for monitoring during any increase in threat condition or elevation in the DHS color code system. We are in the best position to detect, locate, and potentially deter potential threats within our jurisdiction. Some large cities have begun baseline modeling of their entire jurisdiction.

Chemical detection devices. Additional technologies to consider are chemical detection devices used by fire department hazmat and other special response teams. Although these devices have some limitations, they will have some benefit in certain counterterror operations. Gas detection devices have the greatest potential. Although it may be difficult to transport large quantities of liquefied gases, these products have been deployed as part of weapons systems, particularly improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and improvised incendiary devices (IIDs). During this past year, there were at least three attacks in which IEDs with chlorine gas containers have been fitted to vehicles (VIEDs).8

Chemical vapor and chemical agents can also be introduced into facility air- handling systems, so they also pose a threat to structures with large assembly capacities. Gas and chemical detection devices such as a single-gas detection meter and multigas photo ionizing detectors (PIDs) are some of the best tools for this work. Originally designed to monitor workers and responders in hazardous environments, these devices can also be adapted for counterterrorism deployment.

Multigas detection devices vary in capability and cost but are a valuable resource for protecting large crowds, in addition to their intended use during emergency response. When only single-gas detection devices are available, personnel should wear or carry them while walking through crowds or when stationed at critical access points within the assembly space. Multigas detection devices that are less convenient to walk around with could be deployed at a fixed post within the same large assembly location. Simply placing these devices at public access points (e.g., ticket collection areas, visitor entry gates) drastically hardens that target. There are natural choke points where crowds must slow down and assemble in line to enter any event. Any off-gases emanating from dispersal devices could be potentially detected.

Current technology will even allow for PIDs and other detection devices to be networked with wireless communications, allowing for remote monitoring. This capability requires fewer personnel to monitor devices; instead, one individual could monitor multiple devices remotely, inside or outside the structure. Examples for deployment would include HVAC vent ducts and air intakes, primary points of entry for the general public, and sites immediately upwind from large outdoor venues. These devices are especially useful in checking large industrial sites that could be targeted for sabotage of their existing bulk storage and manufacturing systems, especially during heightened alerts. Industrial sites to be most concerned with are those directly adjacent to or upwind of large public venues or densely populated communities. When single-gas and multigas detection meters are available, both should be deployed. The single-gas meters could confirm the results of the multigas meters to help in reducing any false/positive activations. As discussed with radiation detection, establish protocols and procedures with input from law enforcement for normal and above-normal chemical vapor levels in the areas adjacent to these industrial sites.

These are only two basic ideas for deploying our current electronic detection devices. Once again, it needs to be stressed that we should not limit our ability to develop counterterror methods to hazardous material detection devices. There are additional tools for hardening targets and thwarting terrorist threats. We need to think about how all our capabilities and training could be effective against any determined threats.

Accelerant detection canines.In many jurisdictions, the fire service maintains accelerant detection canines (ADC). Although considered low tech by most scientific professionals, ADCs are truly high tech. Canines possess olfactory senses superior to any manmade devices. In addition, no one has developed a high-tech device with such a high level of accuracy that is as mobile and deployable in as many environments. How and where would we deploy ADCs in counterterror operations?

While researching the potential use of ADCs to detect threats employing fire as a terrorist weapon, our office was contacted, through channels, not only to pursue our study but also, if successful, to develop a deployment capability for an upcoming “Event of National Significance.”9 These points of contact had been developed through the U.S. Attorney’s Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council (ATAC) of which the Suffolk County (NY) Fire Marshal’s Office has been a member since 2001.

Our study involved deploying ADCs as a deterrent and a potential alerting system to thwart incendiary device terror attacks. The study confirmed that most domestic and some foreign terror groups prefer fire as their primary weapon. Within four months, we developed a plan for rapidly training and deploying ADCs at the most probable targets. In addition, we also identified handheld PIDs as additional tools for assisting law enforcement in searching for concealed incendiary devices.

Here are a few key points worth considering. First, in looking at potential threats and the probable weapons systems with which we were ordinarily familiar (i.e., fire) that could be deployed within the surrounding jurisdictions, we identified some attack concepts about which other counterterrorism experts were concerned. Then, we considered “What if?” How and where would terrorists attack us? We (1) studied the threat and considered how we could help to detect and deter potential attacks, (2) identified our primary tool (ADCs) and additional tools (PIDs) for this operation, and (3) determined how to deploy these tools. Finally, we could address the makeup of the counterterror response team as well as any civil rights concerns related to the search methods.


The fire service should continue to research the potential WMD threats and delivery systems that could be deployed within our jurisdictions. This is a continuous process that needs annual and semiannual updating. We can use the resources of the state and federal homeland security agencies in this analysis process, as discussed in previous articles. Our study should cover how and where terrorist weapons systems would be most effective. Once we understand these threats, we can then identify the appropriate fire service technology to detect, deter, and thwart these weapons systems. We should also not hesitate to promote the fact that we are prepared to prevent and confront these WMD threats.

Remember, we must not compromise our OPSEC or publicize our specific capabilities. Instead, we should inform the media and the public that we possess current technology that allows us to detect and mitigate many WMD threats. We will have greater mission capability in the future with the development of more sensitive detection devices and protective equipment.

PPE.Currently, “Project Heroes” is working toward developing firefighting personal protective equipment that will address chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats.10 Although future technology and advanced protective gear will take years to be fully integrated into the fire service, we should not be discouraged. “Project Heroes” is intended to rapidly develop and test the prototype gear for certification as a protective ensemble indistinguishable from current firefighting PPE.

Once again, this helps to confuse and deter terrorists, since they will be unable to distinguish between companies and departments equipped with this new PPE and those that are not. This is a core component of counterterror operations. Keeping the terrorists guessing and unsure of what our capabilities are is a force multiplier and great deterrent. New technology available to the fire service includes biological detection devices that can sample for biological threats, including bacterial spores that cause anthrax and plague, viruses such as smallpox, and toxins such as ricin.

While testing and certification continue nationally, our local research should also continue to develop the capabilities of devices currently deployed en mass.

Thermal imaging cameras.Possible future research should include the potential uses of TICs to identify some WMD devices. TICs have had many uses beyond the fire service. One potential use would be detecting improvised nuclear devices or unshielded radiological materials that emanate heat, which could supplement standard detection equipment, especially in agencies where radiation detection devices are deployed in limited quantities.

If successful, TICs could potentially be a first line of defense at large-scale events occurring simultaneously at varied locations. If TICs can perform this task, then they could also reduce the amount of crosstraining needed for radiation detection devices.

TICs also help in a scenario in which standard radiation detection devices begin to activate. The TICs could conceivably look for heat signatures on items, persons, or vehicles. Additional concepts for TICs could include identifying chemical reactions that occur in backpack weapon systems.

Studies could include chemicals that could be identified by being cooler or hotter than normal container signatures. For example, what are the thermal signatures of aerosolized chemical weapons, such as chlorine or ammonia, compared with hair spray or other pressurized beauty products? In addition, what heat signature would an insulated cryogenic container filled with chemical or biological agents look like compared with a thermos of water or some other soft drink?

These are only concepts and theories for only one type of device now deployed by many fire departments. The primary point is that only when the full capabilities for thermal imaging devices and other detection devices are identified and tested will we be able to develop the full range of deployment methods.


Although the war on terror will be a long and costly endeavor, we should not feel defenseless. By incorporating our training, knowledge, and technology (past and present), we can increase our community’s vigilance and aid in this fight. Remember that history has shown that most terrorist efforts have been ultimately defeated; anything that we can do to expedite their demise will ensure our security and our children’s future.


1. This is the goal of Osama Bin Laden as specified in his February 2003 video recording in which he stated, “Exploit the American’s greatest weak points.”

2. The subject, Lyman Faris, was convicted on October 28, 2003, of plotting to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge and derail a train in Washington D.C. He stated, “The weather is too hot” in his message to his Al Qaeda handlers and that they should focus on other targets. Although rarely discussed, this is a bright spot in the war on terror and a great accomplishment for the City of New York public servants and particularly the New York Police Department.

3. Recent historical examples of failed terror groups include the Far East Asian organization Shining Path, the Black September group in the Middle East, and the Red Army Brigades and the Bader-Meinhof Gang in Europe. Even the Irish Republican Army (IRA) has officially given up violence and focused on political means to achieve their goals.

4. On January 10, 2007, Assem Hammoud and Shahawar Matin Siraj were convicted of planning to blow up the Herald Square subway station in New York City. The plot was foiled by an undercover counterterror officer of the New York Police Department.

5. The term for this need-to-know concept is operations security (OPSEC), discussed in “The Fire Service and Counterterrorism: Unified Command” Fire Engineering, February 2006.

6. Actionable levels are usually established locally. Most agencies set their actionable levels at approximately five times background on objects or structures and two times background on subjects.

7. Investigators in London and Moscow identified and confirmed the assassin’s travel patterns and the sites visited based on the low-level radiation contamination detected. These same techniques could be employed for counterterror operations.

8. On February 21, 2007, in Baghdad, Iraq, a VIED with two canisters of chlorine killed five and injured 75. On February 20, 2007, in the same city, a VIED attached to a chlorine tanker killed nine and injured 150. On January 28, 2007, also in Baghdad, a VIED with attached chlorine tank killed 16. During the Columbine High School attacks and the Moroccan terrorist attack of 2002, IEDs with liquid propane gas cylinders were deployed to enhance the blast effects.

9. Operations Security does not allow us to go into the specifics of the threats considered, but this issue can be discussed with other ADC units who submit their request to the Suffolk County Fire Marshal’s Office. Contact the author at

10. “Project Heroes” is a joint effort among the International Association of Fire Fighters, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and Total Fire Group/Morning Pride Manufacturing. The National Personal Protection Technology Laboratory of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and International Personnel Protection, Inc. are testing the assembly, which has been funded under grants from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and the Joint Science and Technology Office. This funding and joint effort among multiple agencies is the best example of the commitment to solving the problems we face in the area of WMD and the urgency to bring the fire service into the counterterrorism side of the fight.

BRETT M. MARTINEZ has been with the fire service since 1983 as a member of the Hauppauge (NY) Fire Department and is a fire marshal for the Suffolk County (NY) Fire Rescue and Emergency Services. He has an associate’s degree in fire science from Suffolk County Community College and has been an FDIC instructor since 2002. He is a New York-certified level II fire investigator, a level I instructor, a peace officer, and an ATF-certified accelerant detection canine handler. He is a member of the U.S. Attorney’s Anti-Terrorist Advisor Council and the coordinator of the Suffolk County Arson Task Force. He has written numerous articles for Fire Engineering and is the author of Multiple Fire Setters: The Process of Tracking and Identification (Fire Engineering, 2002).

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