FDNY SAR policy reflects CHDS coursework

The New York City Fire Department has revised its Suspicious Activity Reporting program under a framework explored during Center for Homeland Defense and Security coursework by Lt. Christopher Ward, an Intelligence Analyst with the department’s Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness (CTDP).

As a student at the Center, Ward penned a paper in the Intelligence for Homeland Security: Organizational and Policy Challenges course that formed the basis of two memorandums that would push the policy revision forward.

The memorandums gauged the effectiveness of the Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) program at the Fire Department of New York City in the intervening years since it was established and contrasted the approaches used for the program by FDNY with the London Fire Brigade. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, fire service professionals were encouraged to share potential terrorism or criminal behavior they observe when responding to a fire or medical call.

1) Ward’s memos examined whether the FDNY’s program, developed shortly after the 9/11 attacks, was optimally functioning and, if not, what were the impediments to it fulfilling the program’s aims and potential. He traces the FDNY’s system and problem areas as well as providing a comparison of operations with the London Fire Brigade.

In initially developing the program the department established a hotline, among other steps such as assigning two fire marshals to the Joint Terrorism Task Force. He identified barriers to personnel reporting information – such as only one forum to do so, the hotline; psychological barriers such as discomfort regarding anonymity, cultural divides between frontline firefighters and investigators; and a declining sense of urgency regarding terrorism; and a lack of feedback when information is reported.

The paper further contrasted FDNY’s SAR operation with the London Fire Brigade’s, which was developed out of a longer history of combating  Northern Island terrorist along with more recent Islamist attacks whereas FDNY’s program was rooted only in the 9/11 attacks isn’t United States and the “7/7” London Subway bombings.

“LFB’s inter-agency Liaison Officers program creates much more consistency between counterterrorism fire officers and front line members than does FDNY,” Ward wrote. “LFB firefighters and fire officers see the same trained members in training, exercises, at emergency scenes, and in SAR exchanges. FDNY utilizes four different bureaus for these activities: Training, CTDP, Operations, and Fire Investigations.”

2) The egregious problem Ward discovered about how the program was operating was that it was underutilized.

“… the paucity of calls received by the BFI (Bureau of Fire Investigations) point to underreporting by a department that responds to millions of fires, emergencies, and medical calls annually, and accesses hundreds of thousands of buildings via fire prevention inspection duties.,” Ward wrote.

Also, when the Bureau of Fire Investigations received a report it found valid, the matter was passed along to the Joint Terrorism Task Force with no analysis performed that could benefit FDNY itself.

3) In September 2013 FDNY reinvigorated its SARS program incorporating many of Ward’s recommendations and by launching an educational awareness campaign. The idea was to make reporting activity easier and to keep it in the consciousness of the department’s members while performing their regular duties.

FNDY has partnered with New York’s state fusion center and the federally backed Nationwide SAR Initiative to share information, something that was not happening previously.

On the education front, FDNY is enlisting its intranet system, known as Diamondplate, to disseminate information about reporting suspicious activity.  During September’s Terrorism Awareness month, various divisions provided content on SAR and the CDTP plans to continue posting case studies and other useful SAR materials on a dedicated landing page.

CDTP also produced an informational video intertwining two realistic scenarios – one aimed at medical crews and the other firefighters – titled “Make the Right Call” – showing how units should handle a suspicious case.

One hurdle Ward discovered was that the system was not user friendly for reporters. To address that an updated version of the terrorism awareness placard that fire apparatus and EMS buses carry-typically on visors-is being distributed and a poster aimed at being a more in-depth source of information toward SAR was distributed to firehouses and EMS stations for education and familiarization, as well as a sticker for the apparatus with important contact information.

“We have reinvigorated the whole program based on these things,” Ward noted. “The point is we have trained eyes out there around the city on millions of calls a year.  If we see something out of place we need to make notification about it.”


Associated file: Course Paper: “Fire Department Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR): A comparative analysis of London Fire Brigade and FDNY practices”