The 9/11 attacks sounded an alarm in fire departments across the country: suddenly, they would need to decide whether they had a role to play in preparing for, and preventing, terrorist attacks. A growing number of fire departments concluded that they did, and are now leveraging their existing capabilities to enhance the effectiveness of local counterterrorism operations. State and local political leaders should encourage this trend; rather than relinquishing counterterrorism to local law enforcement and the federal government, they should seek to integrate their fire departments, which have unique capabilities for safeguarding the homeland, into overall security planning. Such integration should improve public safety across the board.
Nationally, fire departments have impressive manpower and capabilities. According to the National Fire Protection Association, total employment in firefighting occupations was 1,141,900 in 2006, of which more than 823,950 were part-time volunteers. Of the 30,635 fire departments in the United States, 4,052 are career departments, while 26,583 are mostly staffed by volunteers. Firefighters are frequently the first personnel at the scene of an accident or medical emergency, where they perform a wide range of vital functions. Locations range from residential neighborhoods to airports, chemical plants, grasslands, and forests.
Many of the core competencies that fire departments draw on in responding to, mitigating, and preventing natural or man-made disasters can be directed toward preventing terrorist incidents. For example, the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) enforces compliance with fire prevention codes and conducts more than 400,000 building inspections each year. These activities put it in a unique position to notice signs that a violent attack is being planned.
Every firefighter is by law a “peace officer” and duty-bound to report anything unseemly that he or she comes across. However, a role in intelligence-gathering beyond identifying actual and potential hazards would represent an expansion of fire departments’ traditional mission. With their access to private property, their contacts in the local community, and the levels of trust they enjoy there, firefighters can do more than simply identify prospectively, or respond to, situations posing physical danger. They can actually gather, make sense of, and report on circumstances that might hint at terrorist involvement and intent, helped in part by community networks they construct to recognize risks. But if they assume this new mission, they must be wary of encroaching on traditional law-enforcement functions, avoid violating citizens’ civil liberties and retain the trust they now enjoy. In any event, a new relationship with law-enforcement and intelligence agencies would have to be forged. There is every reason to think that fire departments can operate effectively within such constraints.