On the evening of May 1, 2010, firefighters from Uniformed Fire Officers Association Local 854 in New York City got a call about a car fire in Times Square. Six minutes later, Lts. Mike Barvels and John Kazan arrived on the scene to find an SUV parked with one wheel on a curb, hazard lights blinking. The firefighters spotted a number of warning signs, most importantly the white, slow-moving smoke coming from the vehicle. They knew typical car fires involve dark, billowing smoke. Barvels and Kazan decided not to use their fire hose on the truck and instead called for experts to come investigate.
The SUV had been left by a man identified as Faisal Shahzad and contained a homemade car bomb, which was defused before New York could become the scene of another successful terrorist attack. The fact that the fire hose wasn't turned on the vehicle preserved evidence that was used by the FBI to quickly track down and arrest Shahzad, who later pled guilty to the attempted attack. Lt. Jim McGowan, a representative with Local 854, lauded the firefighters:
“The actions and decisions made by Kazan and Barvels were cautious and textbook. Due to their firefighting experience and [anti-]terrorist training, they did not like what they saw, properly sized up the situation and saved the lives of FDNY [New York City Fire Department] firefighters and the public.”
For 20 years, the Fire Fighters (IAFF) union has been conducting more than 300 trainings a year across the United States and Canada and those trainings are updated constantly as new threats emerge:
“Since 9/11, the IAFF has made hazardous materials and anti-terror training an essential component of firefighter education,” says IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger. “These firefighters put their training to work and helped foil this potentially deadly bomb attempt.”
The program pays particular attention to new trends in what first responders are called upon to face, such as a growing trend of drug labs popping up across the country, particularly in the Midwest. These labs are filled with deadly chemicals, and firefighters are trained to spot them in advance to maintain high levels of safety.
The physically and mentally demanding trainings cover not only pop-up drug labs and terrorism, but also hazardous materials, weapons of mass destruction, working in confined spaces and infectious diseases.
Elizabeth Harman, director of IAFF’s HazMat/WMD Department, said the IAFF training program has become a model for many other organizations, primarily because the IAFF has invested heavily in its evaluation process, not only immediately following the training but six to eight months later when IAFF checks subject matter retention and trainees’ confidence with the material.
Its success also lies in that the trainings are customized by location—students get training on the actual equipment they'll use in the field. One course teaches students how to recognize and respond to the dangers of chemical leaks from overturned tanker trucks or chemical facilities, such as the effect winds might have on spreading toxic gases or how to evacuate areas in order to save lives. The trainees wear a full-scale HazMat suit with a heavy breathing apparatus and tanks, which limit mobility, dexterity and peripheral vision. Confined-space training has fully equipped students crawling through confined space props—and the strain can be psychologically challenging for many, particularly those with claustrophobia.
Another course deals with secondary threats to first responders, such as when terrorists set traps in a location specifically to harm firefighters or the police who respond to emergency calls.
"We're really walking into the unknown," says Harman.
And firefighters who go through the training are less likely to make a mistake and better equipped to turn the unknown into the known.