The professional literature on firefighting and homeland security has already identified the key role of firefighters in both preventing and responding to terrorist attacks. However, nearly a decade after 9/11, firefighters are still an underutilized asset in the homeland security effort. This article provides an overview of a framework for information sharing planning (ISP) that can help fire departments fulfill their homeland security information-sharing mission more effectively.
Firefighters are in a unique position to provide vital information regarding possible terrorist activities and the stockpiling of materials for potential incendiaries. In addition to frequently being the first responders on the scene of fires or medical emergencies, fire departments’ responsibilities, which extend to code inspection, provide the unique opportunity for firefighters to access buildings and locations for which law enforcement personnel would be required to obtain warrants to enter. Firefighters are ideally suited to be the eyes and ears for signs of terrorist activity; however, unless they receive training, they may not recognize the key indicators. Examples of these indicators:
- Suspicious behavior
- Unusual supplies, such as bomb-making equipment, weapons or improvised explosive devices (IEDs)
- Unusual documents, such as phony IDs or extremist literature
- Evidence of intelligence-gathering, such as maps of the city or photos of transit systems or infrastructure
Unfortunately, to date, no systematic training related to helping firefighters recognize terrorist activity has been undertaken. Further, as of May 2010, only 15 of the more than 30,000 fire departments in the United States have received terrorism-indicator training (Heirston, 2010).
In addition to knowing how to recognize the physical manifestations of terrorist activity, firefighters need to know how to report what they see to key personnel at the local, state, regional and federal levels. To ease the process, in recent years, states have established intelligence fusion centers that are responsible for analyzing reports of suspicious activity. Although the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and individual states support these centers, few fire departments work directly with these fusion centers as part of information sharing and planning.
Further, although every strategy and plan calls for information-sharing, only the national fire service, working in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Intelligence and Analysis (DHS I&A), has developed a Fire Service Intelligence Enterprise (FSIE) concept plan (CONPLAN). FSIE links the fire service to the Target Capabilities List for CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and enhanced conventional weapons), and helps facilitate information-sharing partnerships with other federal agencies with a homeland security mission. Until now, the only city-based fire department to emulate the FSIE planning model is the FDNY, but other major metropolitan areas also need to implement planning models that address the FSIE strategies. One example of why: My department—the Philadelphia Fire Department (PFD)—recently responded to an incident at the Philadelphia International Airport for suspicious packages that turned out to be sent by terrorists in Yemen. Without effective information sharing, the packages may have reached their targets in Chicago and exploded, prompting a massive coordination effort by responding agencies.
During a crisis, information rarely flows effectively within or between organizations that have not developed information-sharing plans and execution procedures. The aforementioned example underscores the need for fire departments to receive training on terrorist activity indicators so that they can get the right information to the right people at the right time.
Developing a Regional ISP Effort
With an eye set upon going beyond interoperable radio communication systems, the PFD is currently working with the Philadelphia Area Regional Transit Security Working Group (PARTSWG) and its regional partners to develop a Regional Information Sharing Plan. The parties involved intend to propose an information-sharing strategy based on a proven methodology that makes use of software from Mind-Alliance Systems. The project focuses on preventing an IED attack on the rail system in Philadelphia, and it links the PFD and its regional partners in an effort to share information more effectively.
It’s important to remember that fire departments not only respond to emergencies as they occur, but they also play an active role in prevention activities related to terrorism. Using ISP enables interconnected organizations to understand each other’s needs and capabilities better.
Implementing this process within fire departments requires:
- Evaluating internal communication protocols
- Determining the information needs of external parties and agencies
- Assessing the flow of information between jurisdictions, levels of government, disciplines and sectors
- Setting requirements for timely, accurate, secure and policy-compliant communication
In addition to going through pre-crisis planning processes, fire personnel must consider the following questions:
- What information do I need to share and when and with whom?
- What information do I need to receive and when and from whom?
- What policies restrict or require information sharing?
- What information-sharing issues ought to be identified and addressed ahead of an incident?
- What are the likely consequences of failing to share information?
Without a coherent framework or initiative, these questions are rarely answered or incorporated into actionable procedures. Therefore, the ISP procedures developed during the PARTSWG project will enable the PFD to contribute meaningfully to the regional threat picture, which will be created by the new Delaware Valley Intelligence Center (DVIC). The purpose behind the DVIC is to enable disparate regional organizations to access/contribute to information about their regional threat picture.
The Information Flow Map
Once this information is executable, guidelines need to be established as to how information will flow to all the regional stakeholders. This includes details about who to contact and how to communicate information. At the PFD, procedures for the flow of information between regional stakeholders will be produced by Mind-Alliance’s Channels software, and will be accessible both online and in print as a report. These procedures can be appended to the fire department’s annex in the city’s emergency operation plan and the Regional Transit Security Plan, as the procedures are easily incorporated into training materials.
For example, training would include an information flow map to help fire department personnel visualize the communication process in reference to the discovery of bomb-making equipment at a fire scene:
- The on-scene incident commander would send information to the appropriate personnel by radio about the discovery of suspicious material and simultaneously contact the radio room.
- The company officer would order evacuation of the building and request the dispatch of the bomb squad from the Special Services of the police department. They would also alert the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the fire marshal.
- The ATF agent would alert the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF).
- The appropriate personnel would instruct patrols to canvas the area for suspicious license plates and interview other tenants and/or neighbors.
This what’s involved during the discovery of bomb-making equipment. Imagine what’s involved in the event of a chemical attack or a dirty bomb that, as WikiLeaks has recently revealed, is very possibly being planned for at the national level. This is why ISP cannot be left to chance or personal relationships.
Traditional approaches to planning do not indicate who receives and sends information from and to whom in the different agencies depicted. There is no specificity or accountability. A new information flow map developed by Mind-Alliance adds accountability to the process and allows for a drill down to the details as to who needs to send and receive what information.
With Mind-Alliance’s Channels software, the user can see all points of failure, bottlenecks and gaps in the flow of information, detecting more than 80 different issues. Working through table-top exercises as part of the PARTSWG interagency collaborative project, the ISP process has raised awareness regarding what information firefighters must share, as well as what agency or agencies can most effectively make use of the information in a timely manner. This training has also allowed the regional partners to clearly define what information is needed, and it has exposed the region to a wider range of potential information sharing partners.
By linking the fire department into the ISP framework of the region, firefighters can become effective and vital partners in the homeland security protection mission. There should be no doubt that information sharing is essential to keeping the communities we serve safe.
Information sharing is an important component of terrorism training and prevention because it helps all the organizations that collect information (federal, state and local) connect the dots, which is important because no one organization has access to all the needed information. Additionally, information sharing enables information that is vital to the Homeland Security mission to be dispersed in a timely manner. Finally, because it takes a network to beat a network, successfully sharing information with all stakeholders provides a formula for success in guarding against future terrorist attacks.
Heirston B. Firefighter and information sharing: smart practice or bad idea? Homeland Security Affairs. 2010; VI(2):1.