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Local Law Enforcement Officials and Firefighters Across the Country Join Forces in the Fight Against Terrorism

Counterterrorism training for first responders has already resulted in mitigating a terrorist act in progress.

em_new york fire terrorism training
An FDNY firefighter races to help victims during a simulated bus bombing. Official Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Randall A. Clinton.
Official Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Randall A. Clinton
[Photo: An FDNY firefighter races to help victims during a simulated bus bombing. Official Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Randall A. Clinton.]

In the heart of New York City on a lively Saturday night, an abandoned SUV, its engine running and hazard lights flashing, started to smoke.

The vehicle caught a nearby street vendor’s eye and in no time, the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) flooded the scene. But something was wrong. First, the smoke was white, but blazes burn black. Second, with a thermal imaging camera, firefighters realized the smoke wasn’t coming from the engine like it would in a normal car fire. Then they heard popping noises and saw flashes inside.

So instead of using hoses, Engine 54 and Ladder 4 firefighters used their heads: They called the Bomb Squad and blocked off the area.

“We put together pieces of the puzzle and said, ‘Let’s stand back until we get more information,’” said Ladder 4 Lt. John Kazan in a statement from the city. “Everything was a little clue saying something wasn’t right.”

On May 1 in Times Square, the crude car bomb was ignited but failed to explode, and it was disarmed before it caused any damage. Two days later, federal agents caught the culprit — 30-year-old Faisal Shahzad, who reportedly trained at a Pakistani terrorist training camp.

To help prevent such terrorist acts from happening on American soil, local law enforcement officials and emergency responders are going through training of their own. Indeed, for local police and fire departments, counterterrorism is new territory.

In decades past, this was a matter left to federal agencies such as the FBI and CIA. But in the wake of 9/11, public safety officials from New York City to Los Angeles have launched initiatives to train first responders to recognize, analyze and neutralize potential terrorist threats.

In fact, the firefighters who helped stop the car bomb from blowing up in Times Square credit their counterterrorism training for knowing how to respond.

“We know that New York does remain a target for those who feel threatened by a free and open society and all that it represents,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg on May 3, “and that’s why over the past eight years, our agencies have trained constantly and rigorously on how to respond to possible terrorist incidents.”

First Preventers

Bringing first responders into the federal fold to fight terrorism didn’t happen overnight. In many ways, the process is still in progress.

That’s because realizing the full counterterrorist potential of local public safety officials requires a philosophical shift, according to Policing Terrorism, a 2006 research paper published by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

“Local law enforcement officers are primarily viewed as ‘first responders’ to incidents rather than as potential ‘first preventers’ of terrorism,” wrote the authors William J. Bratton and George Kelling. “As a result, the United States remains far more vulnerable than it should be.”

Let the record show that Bratton, one of America’s premier police chiefs, believed in the power and potential of a united police force long before planes hijacked by terrorists crashed into the Twin Towers. At the New York City Police Department, Bratton led the implementation of the revolutionary command accountability system called CompStat. Now in use by police departments nationwide, the system employs real-time intelligence and innovative tactics to help law enforcement officials connect and stop crimes before they happen.

For decades, Bratton re-engineered police departments, fighting crime in creative ways. For instance, when he was chief of the New York City Transit Police, Bratton implemented what Kelling, a criminologist, called the “broken-windows theory,” creating a hostile environment for criminals by focusing on minor offenses and community disorder.

In the post-9/11 world, Bratton saw these same strategies as viable homeland security solutions. As chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), he helped build the LAPD’s regional fusion operations center as part of a joint project between the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs between 2003 and 2007.

With more than 70 fusion centers across the country using the latest crime analysis, information sharing and intelligence technologies to fight terrorism, the times have indeed changed. Before 9/11, police departments most likely would have been left out of the counterterrorism equation, said Bratton, now the chairman of Altegrity Risk International, a global risk consulting and information services company.

“After 9/11, it became quite clear that the first responders were going to have to be equipped better and trained better to be coordinated in our response,” he said. “While it took a while for the federal government to understand that we need to be a part of the intelligence community, they’ve started to come around. We’re not where we need to be, but we’re a lot further along than we once were.”

Power in Numbers

In 2008, the LAPD launched a five-month pilot called the National Counter-Terrorism Academy, which brought in 30 local agencies for training on the nature of terrorist threats.

Here’s a glimpse of the syllabus: the evolution of al-Qaida; religious extremism; homegrown terror groups; reading assignments from Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower; a comprehensive study of the events leading up to 9/11; and the breakdown of American intelligence.

That was just phase one.

This spring, the department wrapped up an expanded version of the program with 100 agencies in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In the next few months, five cities across the country will participate in a 30-month program funded by a $2.4 million FEMA grant. The course will train 3,300 mid-level managers in classrooms and online on intelligence-based prevention strategies, according to Deputy Chief Michael Downing, head of the LAPD’s counterterrorism unit.

“We’re not too much involved in response and recovery,” Downing said. “If we’re responding and trying to recover, we’ve failed in preventing it. We want to stay to the left of the boom.”

The solution comes from basic math. With only 13,000 FBI employees and 700 locations, the federal agency can’t see everything. But backed by 750,000 state and local officers on the ground, Downing said, terrorists will have more trouble finding places to hide.

“We have a very decentralized law enforcement structure in the U.S.,” he said. “If we’re not leveraging cops and firefighters, we’re not taking advantage of those resources.”

Local police on the streets probe citizen tips, patrol neighborhoods and have beat connections that federal agents lack. The program aims to produce a web of local public safety teams that can recognize terrorist cells, and collect, analyze and share data in a robust intelligence network.

After 9/11, Kelling, as a criminal justice professor at Rutgers University, helped spearhead a project to connect the heads of counterterrorism units from all departments along Interstate 95. To this day, public safety officials from Maine to Miami meet three times a year, he said, comparing notes and networking.

“Police managers at their own level have to protect themselves and develop their own intelligence,” Kelling said. “We’re a far cry from the point where cities can put down their guard and say, ‘We can rely on the FBI.’”

Call of Duty

It was April 22, a sunny day on Randall’s Island in New York, when about 200 city firefighters and U.S. Marines responded to a bus bombing. On the scene, mangled bodies littered the streets; first responders worked to remove victims from the danger area and cut open cars with people trapped inside.

But that strike was just the beginning. Public safety officers received word of a subway chemical attack, followed by two improvised explosive device explosions and two building collapses.

These incidents, however, were only parts of a drill — a mock terrorist attack for emergency personnel. The large-scale simulation culminated a weeklong training program at the FDNY Fire Academy for firefighters and the Marine Corps’ Chemical Biological Incident Response Force. Exercises during the week included finding and rescuing people in a fallen structure, rappelling down buildings, and extracting victims from vehicles.

For the final drill, they put all that training to the test in a joint response mission, collaborating in terrible conditions to rescue passengers and provide medical care and decontamination onsite.

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