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The ABCs of fire as a weapon

If your agency doesn't have a plan for how to deal with fire as a weapon, it's time to get to work


By Mike Wood, FireRescue1 Contributor

Fire has been with us since the beginning of time, and has always been an effective and efficient weapon. It's viciously destructive, spreads rapidly, is difficult to contain, and is extremely lethal in dense, urban areas. It's portable, cheap, easily concealed and easy to use. It's especially effective as a terror weapon because humans have a deep, innate fear of it – while people may rush to the sound of guns out of curiosity, few would ever willingly go into a fire.

Fire is dramatic. Flames and smoke are not only powerful weapons, they are powerful images that play well on television. This combination of deadly efficiency and visual impact makes fire a perfect choice to attract the media attention terrorists need to spread their message and influence.

It was determined that professional, serial arsonists were responsible for a large number of the fires set during recent civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. (AP Photo)
It was determined that professional, serial arsonists were responsible for a large number of the fires set during recent civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. (AP Photo)

Despite its common nature, the law enforcement community is often ill prepared to deal with fire. Many law enforcement officials view fire as the domain of their firefighter brethren, with no plans to become involved outside of establishing a perimeter for crowd and traffic control. 

While this division of labor might work at a fire scene with no criminal component, it fails to address those situations where fire is used as a weapon by an active attacker. In this scenario, fire crews cannot assault the fire unless the criminal threat is first countered by law enforcement.

Unfortunately, law enforcement is unlikely to enter and engage the criminal until the fire is suppressed. The resulting paradox leads to confusion and indecision in many cases, giving the advantage to the attacker.

Joint fire, police response requires

Mike Clumpner, president of Threat Suppression, Inc., which specializes in public safety training, notes that, "The day of public safety silos is over."

We no longer operate in a world where fires are the fire department's problem and violent actors are the police department's problem. Instead, the nature of today's threats – and particularly the terrorist threat – dictates that public safety professionals must cooperate, train and work together to ensure public safety.

Police and fire professionals must leverage their unique strengths and capabilities to work in a coordinated fashion to maximize their effectiveness.

To do this, it's helpful to understand the kinds of operations that would require a joint police-fire response. Clumpner breaks these into four categories, which he calls the ABCs of fire as a weapon.

Each of the categories has its own special threats, considerations and requirements for law enforcement and fire personnel.

A – Ambush

In an ambush, fire is used as a weapon to attack unwitting victims, or as bait to lure responders into an area where they will be attacked with other weapons.

For example, Clumpner notes that drug laboratories and contraband caches are frequently rigged with incendiaries to destroy evidence and permit escape, so tactical teams going into these targets must incorporate fire considerations into their planning, equipment, tactics and operations. Similar attention should be paid to security measures at fire and police stations, and other likely targets of arson or firebombing attacks.

Responders called to fire scenes should consider that the fire may have been intentionally set to lure responders into a trap, as witnessed in the Webster, New York attack on Christmas Eve in 2012, or the Memphis, Tennessee, attack on March 9, 2000, in which two firefighters and a sheriff's deputy were killed.

Officers should make good use of cover and concealment during their initial approach and be mindful of cues like suspicious reporting, remote locations or downed personnel outside the location when evaluating the scene.

B – Barricade 

In barricade scenarios, fire is used by an attacker who is holding hostages (like the Branch Davidian compound, in Waco, Texas) or who is launching an attack from within, such as a sniper firing from within a burning structure.

If an assault or hostage rescue is required, tactical teams will need to have breathing apparatus capabilities to enter the scene, and may also need a means of protecting and evacuating innocents that are rescued (fire blankets, stretchers, etc.). 

Firefighters may need to work in concert with police to clear a path for entry and egress, and the situation may dictate either internal or external firefighting techniques. In either case, force protection for these firefighters will be essential, as will a clear means of communication between participants, and coordinated incident command.

C – Civil unrest

In civil unrest, fire is used by attackers to destroy property, harm innocents, attack public safety officials and mask criminal activity. An important factor in this scenario is that fire incites frenzy, so it must be extinguished quickly before it encourages further violence and unrest.

Firefighters frequently need police protection to accomplish their jobs in this environment. Police need to be equipped and trained to handle fire-based attacks, such as Molotov cocktails. Mutual aid agreements with neighboring agencies must be in place ahead of time to ensure smooth execution.

Interestingly, it was determined that professional, serial arsonists were responsible for a large number of the fires set during recent civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland. These fires had been preplanned in advance of the major court decisions and announcements that precipitated the violence. This indicates the need for active intelligence and patrol efforts to defeat the fire risk in advance of high profile events that have the potential to spark unrest.

C – Complex, coordinated attack

In a complex, coordinated attack, fire is used as part of a symphonic attack, where multiple locations are hit simultaneously, or in close succession, to overwhelm the ability of defenders to respond rapidly and efficiently. 

An iconic image of fire being used as a weapon in a CCA is the burning of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel during the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, which seemed to symbolize the government's inability to successfully deal with the attack.

In a CCA, resources are stretched thin and priorities difficult to establish, so coordination and cooperation between police and fire leaders is essential. 

Secondary attacks on responding police and fire crews must be anticipated and proper tactics used to mitigate the threat.  A suitable reserve force must be established to preserve a quick reaction capability for additional attack locations.

It's notable that terrorist publications Inspire Magazine and Rumiyah have recently emphasized the use of fire as a weapon, and past experience indicates these sources have been very influential in shaping the tactics used by terrorists. The publications note that there is a decreased risk of police detection during the planning and preparation phases if fire is the principal weapon instead of explosives or firearms. This indicates that intelligence efforts may need to be refocused to include a greater awareness of this threat and the precursors to fire-based attacks.

Integrate our knowledge of structural firefighting and law enforcement tactics

These are some of the many considerations to address when planning a professional response to attacks where fire is used as a weapon. It can seem overwhelming when considering the complexities and details associated with planning for these various scenarios, but Clumpner advises public safety officials to take heart: "We have the skills and experience necessary to do this. The solution is to properly integrate our knowledge of structural firefighting with our knowledge of sound law enforcement tactics."

Successful response requires commitment from both police and fire leaders. If your agency doesn't have a plan for how to deal with fire as a weapon, it's time to get to work.

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