Fire and EMS Role in Protecting the Homeland

By David Lewis, Convention Presenter

Each day, fire and EMS personnel respond to a variety of routine service calls or emergency incidents in their communities. While most of these incidents are routine and do not present a threat to homeland security, it is necessary to always maintain situational awareness and be alert for activity that may indicate possible criminal or terrorist activity.

Since the horrific incidents of 9/11, the role of fire and EMS personnel in protecting the homeland has increased because of the recognition that the need for information and intelligence is vital. Fire and EMS personnel provide a critical link in completing the homeland security puzzle. Today, fire and EMS personnel, as well as the public at large, are expected to serve as additional eyes and ears for law enforcement and report suspicious activity so that further investigation by the proper authority can be initiated.

The reviews of the U.S. intelligence system that followed 9/11 showed the need for closer cooperation between local, state and federal agencies to satisfy intelligence collection and analysis requirements. It also recognized the need for closer cooperation between law enforcement, fire, EMS, public health, emergency management and other public safety agencies. Each organization holds a vital piece of the puzzle that cannot be completed without the participation of all public safety agencies and the public.

Because of these reviews and criticisms of the U.S. intelligence system, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft directed the formation of an Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council (ATAC) at each U.S. Attorney office location. This directive also led to the formation of a fusion center in each region to serve as a resource for federal, state, and local agencies to gather, analyze and share intelligence information.

Each ATAC serves as a policy-making and oversight element for local homeland security initiatives. ATACs bring forth resources from both the public and private sector to identify the threat environment, share information and establish policy for the operation of the local fusion center. Fusion centers represent the operational element of the new homeland security initiatives. While originally formed to combat the threat of terrorism, fusion centers have evolved to combat a range of criminal and terrorist activities.

Today’s fusion centers are staffed by a diverse group of agencies who collaborate to detect, prevent, apprehend and respond to criminal and terrorist activity. Each agency brings a unique set of resources, expertise and information to the table to aid in the analysis of homeland security threats in their area of responsibility.

As of February 2018, there are 79 fusion centers recognized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. One in each state and regional centers operating in larger municipalities. The success of the fusion center concept is based on teamwork and prevention efforts. When information is received from agency or civilian reporting, it must be analyzed for validity and then fused with other information. As the “dots are connected,” the puzzle becomes complete and may lead to further investigative efforts.

In the normal course of duty, fire and EMS personnel are granted access to businesses or private residences to address public concerns. The public values our service and entrusts us to enter their homes or businesses without fear of punitive action.

While performing these routine duties, personnel should consider that they serve a vital role in the security of their communities by maintaining situational awareness and being aware of their surroundings. Personnel should always be on alert for possible signs of criminal or terrorist activities and maintain a relationship with law enforcement for report of these activities for any possibility of additional investigation or
enforcement action.

Signs of possible criminal or terrorist activity may include: large quantities of material not typically found in a household, printed materials that may reflect planning activities or terrorist supportive viewpoints, unreasonable security or surveillance equipment, large caches of weapons and ammunition, or detailed questioning about operational capabilities or security systems.

Personnel need to be aware that suspicious behavior alone is not illegal. However, this behavior could be a precursor to a planned
event and reports of such behavior could possibly prevent hostile actions from being carried out.

It is also important that personnel exercise due regard for their personal safety on each incident as the risk of personal injury is
ever-present. No measures should be taken to draw attention to your observations, but carefully note what you observe and report to law enforcement once you have returned to the station.

The fire and EMS services have a long history of forming partnerships to meet mission requirements. The role of homeland security is one additional area that has evolved and grown in importance since 9/11.

All personnel should be constantly aware of their surroundings and be aware of the proper procedures for reporting suspicious activity to law enforcement and the state fusion center. Together we can keep our communities and our homeland safe and free from hostile activity.

David Lewis is an active member of the Odenton Volunteer Fire Co. (Maryland), currently serving as President. He has extensive experience in fire service leadership, emergency management and homeland security. In addition to numerous conference presentations, he delivers training programs for the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, the University of Maryland and the National Fire Academy.