Tech-heavy fusion centers to gain firefighting expertise

At the height of the recent California wildfire disaster, Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff unveiled a plan to reinforce the nation's multihazard fusion centers with expert firefighters.

Chertoff told the International Association of Fire Chiefs that in the federal government, 'we're trying to integrate fire operations into the very fabric of DHS. Our National Operations Center now has a Fire Desk.'

Chertoff added that the center includes a fire service representative who works alongside officials from organizations such as the FBI, other law enforcement agencies and the intelligence community.

Charlie Allen, DHS' assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis, is spearheading a drive to add firefighting experts to state and local fusion centers, Chertoff said.

He acknowledged in the speech that some might ask what role firefighters would play at fusion centers dominated by police and intelligence experts.

Answering his rhetorical question, Chertoff said that in many cases, the first person to arrive at the scene of an explosion or fire is a firefighter or other first responder. That person's observations and conclusions might indicate that the source of the outbreak is not an accident but a criminal or terrorist act.

'And that's why fusing firefighters and responders into the normal law enforcement and Counterterror Intelligence Fusion Center is critical to get a whole picture of what's going on,' Chertoff said.

He cited his experiences in the Top Officials (TopOff) 4 exercise in three cities earlier this year, which featured simulated attacks by improvised explosive devices, which increasingly employ sophisticated manufacturing techniques and advanced technology, and radiological weapons detonations.

Chertoff said that in TopOff 4, firefighters in Portland, Ore., wore badges indicating the presence of radioactivity at the scene.

'And the reason they have those badges, which they really have in real life, is because we have gotten that equipment to the firefighters up in Portland and because their standard operating procedure when there's an explosion is to put those badges on so they can be protected and so they can warn others that there's radioactive material in the explosion,' Chertoff said. 'That is exactly the kind of step forward that we need to be making to unify our activities.'

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