Firefighters Train To Fight Terrorists, Too

The first people to respond to the attempted bombing in Times Square were firefighters from Ladder 54. The firefighters credit their counterterrorism training since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for making them much more aware of possible terrorist strikes. Fire departments across the country are starting to train their firefighters not just to fight fires but to fight terrorism, too.

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Later today, the main suspect in the attempted car bombing in Times Square is scheduled to appear in court. Faisal Shahzad is expected to respond to the charges against him.

Now, there's been a lot of focus on how police and the FBI cracked this case. But the first emergency responders who understood that an SUV in Times Square, New York City could be a car bomb were New York City firefighters. New York's fire department has been going through training for the past eight years for events just like this one. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports on its growing counterterrorism role.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: It was a Saturday night in Times Square just before dinner. The matinee shows in the theater district were about to let out when street vendors noticed a car parked on the corner. Its hazard lights were on and it looked like it was on fire. Joe Pfeifer is the New York fire department's counterterrorism chief. He tells what happened next.

Chief JOE PFEIFER (Counterterrorism and Emergency Preparedness, New York Fire Department): The fire units arrive at the scene. And the officer of the fire unit thought there was something didn't look right.

Lieutenant JOHN KAZAN (New York City Fire Department): I saw the color of the smoke. I saw white smoke in the car that was totally unusual. It was definitely not anything I've seen in my career.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Lieutenant John Kazan was one of the first responders. As a general matter, when firefighters arrive at a car fire the owner of the car is usually there, arms waving. The car hood is often up, and any firefighter will tell you the smoke is either black or gray.

So this SUV fire was different. The owner of the car was nowhere to be seen. The smoke was white. Then firefighters noticed sparks flying up from the back seat. Kazan took out a thermal camera and scanned the car. It's a handheld device; a heat source will show up on its five-inch screen. The camera didn't pick up anything unusual.

Lt. KAZAN: All these things are adding up to: this is not like a regular car fire that we usually go to.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Kazan told the men to fill the hoses with water and asked the police to run the plates. The report came back; the plates and the car didn't match. At that point, Kazan was pretty sure that the FDNY had a car bomb on its hands - something the fire department might not have been ready for just a few years ago.

Chief PFEIFER: Post-9/11, we were much more conscious of New York being their target.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, the fire department's Joe Pfeifer.

Chief PFEIFER: So we'll prepare our firefighters to look at chemical, biological and radiological events, possibility of explosives and the possibility of using fire as a weapon.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The fact that the New York City Police Department has its own counterterrorism unit is fairly well-known. What is less well-known is that the Fire Department of New York has one, too. And they aren't alone. Cities like Los Angeles have already launched similar counterterrorism training programs.

Reid Sawyer's the head of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. He says that big cities are starting to realize that they have to expand their counterterrorism training beyond traditional law enforcement.

Lieutenant Colonel REID SAWYER (Director, Combating Terrorism Center, West Point): I think it's critical that we start to think about non-traditional intelligence consumers or non-traditional law enforcement services, like the fire service, or in this case the fire department in New York City. Because if they're not prepared for the counterterrorism mission, with the range of threats that al-Qaida and the affiliated groups present to us today, they can't be in a position to protect our citizens.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The risk is that by adding one more layer to the list of organizations trying to fight terrorism could be counterproductive. Chief Pfeifer, of the fire department, says that hasn't been his experience. The thinking is, putting resources together will not only help prevent terrorist attacks, but limit the damage they can do.

Chief PFEIFER: It used to be to have power, you hoarded information and you held it within your organization. The shift is that to be powerful with an emergency response is to share information.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Times Square, Pfeifer says, is a perfect example. A beat cop doesn't know how to read a fire, and traditionally a firefighter hasn't had to imagine terrorist scenarios.

(Soundbite of conversations)

TEMPLE-RASTON: Last week, the FDNY unveiled the latest weapon in its counterterrorism arsenal: Fire Boat 343, a $27 million, 500-ton counterterrorism vessel funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Commissioner SAL CASSANO (Fire Department, New York City): Chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, capable of detecting those agents.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's New York City Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano.

Mr. CASSANO: It's got a pressurized cabin so that we can get closer to the event. It pumps 50,000 gallons of water per minute. It's got a crane on the back that will allow us to pump water or allow us to pull things out of the water. Three Forty-Three is everything we've been training for since September 11th.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The FDNY lost 343 firefighters on 9/11, that's where their new fire boat gets its name. The big block letters on the side of the boat, spelling out 343, are made from steel salvaged from the World Trade Center.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York.

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