The Flaming Sword Hath Been Unsheathed
The re-emergence of Fire as a Weapon
Lately in the fire service, there have been numerous “hot button issues” raised on how to best fight fires and operate at incidents. Using fire as a weapon is one of those topics drawing the attention of first responders. This is illustrated in the iconic images of the World Trade Center and the Taj Hotel burning in Mumbai. The same places where people hung out of windows and others jumping to certain death when left with no other option, fire has a major effect both physically and psychologically.
The use of fire as a weapon can be traced most popularly back to 672, by the Byzantine empire, known as “Greek Fire.” Specifically, the Byzantines used fire as form of naval warfare, where they would flow an unknown concoction of what is believed to be pine resin, naptha, and sulfur onto the sea, and ignite it, engulfing enemy ships. This tactic lead to many naval victories, most notably the battle for Constantinople.
One of the biggest concerns to modern first responders regarding the intentional use of fire as a weapon is the simplicity to use. All a determined individual would need are a match and some gasoline, items easily purchased at a local gas station without arousing too much suspicion. This was seen in the 1990 New York City arson attack on the “Happy Land Night Club,” where an arsonist poured gasoline on the exits stairs, killing 87 people, after setting the club ablaze.
The intentional use of fire to lure first responders into an ambush has also been recently seen domestically. On December 24, 2012 at 5:30 a.m., the Webster, NY fire department responded to a building fire that was intentionally set by convicted murderer William Spengler, Jr. who had murdered his sister after a domestic dispute. Spengler had expressed in a letter his intent to ambush first responders, but a motive was never found. Upon arrival, the first engine company came under fire from Spengler, who had positioned himself behind an earthen berm across the street from the burning house, injuring two and murdering two other firefighters. As a result of the ambush, firefighting operations were delayed until 11:30, allowing the fire to spread unabated and destroying six other homes.
The impact that this has toward first responders is critical. Firefighters used to respond to incidents without the expectation of being attacked when they got there. Now firefighters must consider the possibility of secondary threats, asking themselves “Am I going to be shot at when I get there?” “Should I wait on police before starting to suppress the fire?” “Do I need to park my truck further away?” Once thought of as simple fire events now hold the possibility of malicious attacks.
There is a lot of rhetoric being pushed for arming firefighters around the country in anticipation for these high threat events. We do not believe that this is the right tactic. We push for better situational awareness of the new threat environment and training. Responders across all disciplines need to be aware that the environment has changed; specifically that the intentional use of fire as a weapon is a threat to responder safety. Multi-disciplined training should be conducted to simulate this complex incident type, and ensure that all disciplines are ready to combat and respond in a coordinated manner.