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Fire Departments

Updated: January 1, 2006
This publication is now archived.

Can fire departments help respond to terrorist attacks?

Yes, as they famously did on September 11. America’s 31,000 local fire department are the first line of defense in many dangerous incidents, arriving within minutes of an alarm—often before anyone knows if what’s happening is an accident, arson, or terrorism. In addition to putting out fires, firefighters rescue people in danger, provide emergency medical services, and handle situations involving hazardous materials. These duties, combined with their quick-response role, put fire departments on the frontlines of responding to terrorist incidents. In an effort to contain the damage, save lives, and manage the crisis on the morning of September 11 in lower Manhattan, 343 New York City firefighters died in the attack on the World Trade Center.

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Are firefighters trained to respond to terrorist attacks?

Yes. Some fire departments maintain specialized rescue or hazardous-materials units with skills that might also apply in a terrorist attack. And since the mid-1990s, many of America’s million or more firefighters have been trained to be alert for threats from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. They have learned to watch out for secondary bombs after a first explosion, to stay away from potential biological or chemical toxins without proper equipment, to preserve evidence, and to coordinate with other federal and local authorities. Other groups such as the FBI and public health officials also respond to terrorist incidents, but it may take them longer to arrive at the scene.

When did fire departments start to worry about terrorism?

Fire service officials say that the 1993 World Trade Center bombing alerted them to the need for terrorism preparations, and that two major 1995 terrorist attacks—the release of sarin gas on the Tokyo subway and Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City —underscored the urgency. The September 11 attacks have led officials to call for all firefighters to receive basic terrorism-response training.

Will the September 11 attacks change how firefighters do their jobs?

Yes. After the loss of hundreds of New York firefighters in the Twin Towers attack, fire officials around the country are reevaluating whether they should do more to restrain firefighters’ impulse to enter burning buildings and rush into other situations where their own lives might be in peril. In light of increased concern over invisible dangers like biological or chemical weapons, current protocols direct firefighters not to enter an area unless they know what substance is involved and are wearing safety equipment.

The New York Fire Department—which lost many members of its rescue, training, and leadership teams, as well as vehicles and other specialized equipment—conducted an internal review of its emergency response procedures to study how its staff handled the attack, and to explore failures in radio communications.

Did the September 11 attacks raise other concerns for fire departments?

Yes. Fire service officials are calling for more training, better equipment such as particle-filtering masks (not the oxygen masks firefighters sometimes wear), and the funding to pay for these improvements. They are also eager to rein in “self-deployers”—firefighters from other jurisdictions who decide as individuals to drive to the scene of an incident and offer help, as happened with the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. However noble their aims, experts say, self-deployers can be a hindrance when they show up unannounced, and they also leave their home departments high and dry—which could pose a danger in case of a local fire or a multiphase terrorist attack.

Are fire departments organized on a national level

Fire departments are fundamentally local institutions, although they share many protocols and have mutual-aid agreements with neighboring departments so they can support each other during major incidents. Fire departments coordinate through national unions, membership organizations, and the U.S. Fire Administration, a division of the Federal Emergency Management Administration. The fire service also has a representative in the White House Homeland Security Office.

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