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INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC SAFETY ASSOCIATION
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Why the term “fire as a weapon” is keeping first responders from getting prepared

13 Apr 2017 12:00 PM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By J. Scott Quirarte

“Fire as a weapon” is a bad term. A weapon is defined as being something designed or used to inflict bodily harm. When fire as a weapon is discussed, it is usually in the context of discussing terrorism and other intentional criminal acts directed at others.

In the past few years, there has been an increase in fire at violent incidents. This is especially true regarding barricades, which more and more are ending in fire.

In these incidents was fire used a as weapon? Was fire a means to an end? Or was it suicide by fire?

Flaws with the terminology

The term, fire as a weapon, is keeping first responders from getting prepared.

The issue with policy makers using terminology like fire as a weapon, is that it is defining only one possible use of fire, and more importantly, one possible scenario. When was the last time you had an incident where fire was used as a weapon? Arson does not count because fire is being used as a tool, not a weapon.

When was the last time fire was a result or byproduct of a criminal act? I can hypothesize that fire was not used as a weapon, but your department has likely experienced an incident in which fire was the result of some other criminal act.

It’s very hard to convince first responders, managers and policy makers to spend the time and money to prepare for something they do not think they will encounter often. For example, if I tell your department that it needs to prepare for fire as a weapon many will ask why because a lot of first responders view terrorism as something that occurs in other jurisdictions. This is a major problem, it is limiting and not a true picture of the threat fire presents. 

Criminal, violent acts and fire

Fire has been and will continue to be part of violent incidents. Instead of planning for a term, lets plan for what needs to be accomplished: fire suppression in the hot and warm zone. If you don’t agree and think the term fire as a weapon is the correct term, that’s fine, just plan for it. 

If your department can handle a large-scale fire as a weapon incident, the single-family home or apartment building will be no problem. The point here is that your department better be prepared, because this is already happening.

Fire during a criminal or violent act is going to happen in your jurisdiction. First responders will receive a call for service that has them answering to a fire in the middle of a law enforcement incident. The scenario may be a domestic incident in which one person ignites the belongings of another, or it may be as complex as an armed person barricaded in an apartment that’s burning. 

We must prepare for these threats. Doing nothing is not an option. Deciding whether to let the involved house or structure burn to the ground because someone is shooting may be justified, but is letting the neighbor’s house burn or putting the community at risk justifiable? How about the entire block? 

The only way to answer these questions is if you have planned the response out in advance and, the plan has procedures for doing more than standing back. When the incident is over, the policy makers and civilians we serve are going to ask questions. Will you have an answer? Will you be able to defend your plan? 

If your answer today is that we have never thought about it or trained for this, then you are going to have problems.

I am not advocating for unsafe operations. I am advocating for a plan prior to the event. If you have not planned for this type of event, then you have no way to properly analyze the risk, and by default, are already operating in an unsafe manner.

Integrated response programs

Rescue Task Forces, and other integrated response programs, can be used for these incidents. If you have a program to provide medical care at violent incidents, you have training that will work for incidents involving fire. A warm zone is a warm zone. The same skills used by law enforcement officers to protect firefighters conducting medical care can also be used for fire suppression.

The biggest error made regarding integrated response is that it is only thought about for large scale AS/MCI incidents. Limiting the utility of an integrated response program is a shortcoming because there’s no limit to how these programs can be used. From simply shutting off a fire alarm, to forcing a door, or throwing a ladder, law enforcement protects and fire complete a task. 

It’s an easy transition to use integrated response skills for fire suppression.

Fire in the hot zone

There will be fire in the hot zone. Firefighters can’t operate in a hot zone, so any fire suppression in hot zones will need to be done by law enforcement. Again, it’s about being completely prepared versus not having a clue about how to respond during this type of scenario.

The first objective for firefighters – after rescue – is to protect exposures. Exposure protection can be done from a distance. So, why can’t a cop do this?

If we let the involved structure burn to the ground and protect exposures everyone wins. Now, I am not saying give cops an SCBA and step back. What I am advocating is to train and educate law enforcement, as part of the integrated response program to give them the skills to support firefighters during this type of scenario.  

While it’s unrealistic to train and educate every cop, it is realistic to teach your SWAT team. Teach SWAT about fire behavior, how smoke is fuel, don’t break windows and to open doors. Teach SWAT how to use a hoseline to protect exposure and do some transitional attack. Practice putting a firefighter in the armored vehicle as the fire expert while cops use a hoselines from the turret. Develop methods for working together to keep the block from burning to the ground.

We are one team. Sit down together and discuss fire suppression in the hot and warm zone. Plan now because it is coming. 


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