ABOUT THIS EPISODE
Explore the history of fire as a weapon and its uses within the fire service, law enforcement, and the latest technological devices. Listen as Chief Keys is joined by Assistant Fire Chief Homer Robertson of Fort Worth Texas Fire Department and Special Agent in Charge, Christopher Combs of the Federal Bureau of Investigation San Antonio Division.
What You Can Expect To Learn
- The history of fire as a weapon
- Police and fire service coordination during riots'
- Joint Terrorism Task Force strategies and implementation
- Utilizing modern firefighting robot technology
- Fusion Center intelligence sharing and task forces
ABOUT OUR GUESTS
For the last 36 years, Homer Robertson has served with the Fort Worth Fire Department where he holds the title of Executive Assistant Chief. Currently, he leads the Educational and Support Service Division of the Department as well as the Office of Emergency Management for the City of Fort Worth. Recently, the Fort Worth Fire Department hosted the country’s first conference discussing Fire as a Weapon with some of the world’s leading experts on the subject. Homer holds a Master’s Degree from Tarleton State University in Political Science and resides with his family in Granbury, Texas.
As the Special Agent in Charge (SAC), Christopher Combs of the San Antonio Field Office oversees the Austin, Brownsville, Del Rio, Laredo, McAllen, and Waco Resident Agencies. Throughout his extensive 25 year career, SAC Combs has directed numerous domestic and international critical incidents. Previously, he co-authored the White House Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina Lessons Learned after-action report and was appointed as the Senior Federal Law Enforcement Official where he oversaw 1,800 federal law enforcement officials completing rescue operations during Hurricane Katrina. In 2008, he received the FBI Director’s Award for Distinguished Service to the Law Enforcement Community for President Obama’s 2008 Inauguration. Before joining the FBI, SAC Combs was a Volunteer Firefighter for eight years with the Freeport, New York, and New Berlin, Wisconsin Fire Departments.
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Rapid Fire Episode Transcript:
Bob Keys, Retired Battalion Chief of FDNY: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to Rapid Fire, a podcast hosted by Fire-Dex, dedicated to sharing best practices and lessons learned in hopes of making firefighting a little bit safer. I'm your host, Bob Keys, Retired Battalion Chief from FDNY. We're fortunate to be joined today by Assistant Fire Chief Homer Robertson from Fort Worth, Texas Fire Department and Special Agent In-Charge, Chris Combs from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, San Antonio Division. How are you gentlemen doing today?
Assistant Fire Chief Homer Robertson: [00:00:29] Great, Bob. Thanks for having us.
Special Agent In-Charge Chris Combs: [00:00:32] Very good. Thank you for this opportunity.
Bob Keys, Retired Battalion Chief of FDNY: [00:00:34] Well, thank you for your time. I know, today more than ever, you guys are busy and your schedules are tight. I very much appreciate you being able to dedicate some time to share what you know, to make firefighters and law enforcement officers a little bit safer.
Today we're going to discuss fire as a weapon and how this is so important for both firefighters and law enforcement officers today, more than ever. Before we get started, I'd like each of our participants to take a minute or less to tell everybody listening an interesting fact about their career. Chief Robertson.
Assistant Fire Chief Homer Robertson: [00:01:05] Thanks, Bob. so, I'm the Executive Assistant Chief here in the Forest Fire Department. So, Fort Worth right now, we're I think the 13th largest city in the United States and, and growing. I've been here in the fire department in Fort Worth going on my 36 year here just a few months and have been fortunate to have spent this time here.
I'm super excited about the topic today. It's kind of one of my passions right now just the fire service, getting involved with and working more with our law enforcement partners. This is a really timely topic just because I think a lot of us in the fire service don't think about fires weapon very often.
Really appreciate you having me on today.
Bob Keys, Retired Battalion Chief of FDNY: [00:01:48] Well, thank you.
Could you explain some interesting facts people would want to know about your career?
Special Agent In-Charge Chris Combs: [00:01:55] Sure, Bob! It's real pleasure to talk to you today. Even though I got 25 years now in the FBI, really it all started with the fire service.
So everybody in my family is either FDNY or volunteers in Freeport, New York. I was fortunate enough to join Freeport Fire Departments as a volunteer for years and then after college, I was also a volunteer out in New Berlin, Wisconsin, and I really found that helped me in the FBI when I find myself at most of the critical incidents the FBI has had over the number of years.
I was the FBI rep to Unified Command for the Pentagon on 911, the anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill, and unfortunately, I was the Bureau's Commander and then our rep to Unified Command for 4 active shooters through the course of my career.
And I feel the fire department really helped me with that. And that's why now I try to kind of dual hat, I'm the FBI representative to the IAFC and I'm on the IAFC Terrorism Committee.
I spent a lot of my time trying to bring fire and police together since I can talk both languages there. Cause I think that partnership is more important today than ever before. I'm really happy to be here. Thank you.
Bob Keys, Retired Battalion Chief of FDNY: [00:03:11] Well, thank you for your dedication to helping the fire service and dedication service to our country. Thank you, sir.
So let's get into fire as a weapon a little bit. Historically, fire has been used as a weapon dating back to medieval times and perhaps even before that. In my career with the FDNY many incidents come to mind, including on 911 when of course we all know that it's the jet fuel fire that caused the collapse of the world trade center, killing close to 3000 people.
When I was a firefighter, just getting promoted to Lieutenant in 1990, there was a fire on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx called the Happy Lands Fire where a deranged individual tried to get revenge on an ex girlfriend, jilted lover. And with a dollar's worth of gasoline, killed 87 young people in the Happy Land Social Club.
My engine company 48 and ladder 56 where I was a firefighter in the eighties were one of the first responding units there; a gruesome, horrible scene.
More recently, we saw fire was used as a weapon burning down the Minneapolis Police Department Precinct Station during civil unrest.
We're seeing increasing use of Molotov cocktails at protests. Uh, people burning up police cars in riot situations and many of the wild land fires in California were arson related. So fire is a weapon in our lives day to day and has been historically for a long time.
I'm wondering if any particular incidents stand out in your mind, chief?
Assistant Fire Chief Homer Robertson: [00:04:38] Well Bob, I'm not going to say right here in the City of Fort Worth I've been to a number of fires and mean anytime that we use fire to kill somebody or potentially harm someone, we're really using it as a weapon.
But, I think one of the most important things that we can talk about today is that we as in the fire service side cannot just think of this as just another fire. Because more than likely it's not going to be just a single aspect of fire. It could be active shooter, improvised devices. They could throw a number of things at it, but fires weapon could just be a part of it, but we've got to sit down and work with our law enforcement partners to talk about how we're going to address that. So they're not just another fire, but you make a great point. And this is probably one of the oldest weapons that we can we talk about going back to biblical times.
Bob Keys, Retired Battalion Chief of FDNY: [00:05:34] Absolutely!
Chris, any particular incidents stand out that maybe better PD/FD coordination would have helped or an example of one where it did help?
Special Agent In-Charge Chris Combs: [00:05:47] Well, I certainly think with all of the riots that we had across the country, we saw some really good cooperation between police and fire. And the use of Molotov cocktails during those riots, obviously a significant increase in anything we've ever seen before. But what also concerns me is while we were all focused on the riots, as we needed to be, you know, ISIS put out a English video that was stressing using fire as a weapon in terrorist attacks. So, we have to look at the riots, but also we're seeing fire used and still being told by terrorists that, "Hey, this is what you should be doin, this is the way to do it." You know, you look back to what happened in India. Although it was a number of years ago with the fires at the hotels when they did that, we're still very concerned that that's going to come up in the future and the only way to tackle that is through the cooperation between fire and police.
Bob Keys, Retired Battalion Chief of FDNY: [00:06:55] Good point. Chris, how can firefighters rank and file firefighters be alerted to threat level increases like that notice that you just told us about how ISIS put out a memo to their followers. How would firefighters best be aware that they should be on the heightened alert for things like that?
Special Agent In-Charge Chris Combs: [00:07:13] I think there's a couple of ways, and I think it's an outreach that we need to do a better job on the FBI side and then fire needs to reach out more to us as well. One of the best ways I think, and this is what I've really been pushing through the IAFC Terrorism Committee, is for fire departments to be members of the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces. By doing that, the fire service gets all of the alerts. They see all of the thread traffic that we're seeing. Right now in the entirety of the United States there's 14 fire departments that are on Joint Terrorism Task Forces and I think we really need to increase that number because the intelligence that we have, that we can push out to the fire service, particularly as fire as a weapon, I think is very important.
With a lot of those members a lot of them are fire marshals cause they're sworn law enforcement, but not all of them. There's a number of where it's an intel capacity. I think that's the best way to do it. I think another way to do it. frankly, because having task officers is, is an expensive thing and it's hard to take somebody off the line to do that, but just day in and day out, we have to develop more connections where the fire departments and the police and the FBI are exchanging information.
I think it's not happening out of any malintent. I think, frankly, it's just not thought about, and I think we need to push that conversation more where we're in each other's thoughts so that we could share this intelligence.
Assistant Fire Chief Homer Robertson: [00:08:53] Yeah, Chris makes some great points there and it's really just based on relationships. If you're a, Chief Officer in a large, medium size small city, you need to have a personal relationship with people at the federal and state level with ATF, with FBI and we're all busy. You need to reach out to those people and make a connection, send them an email, make sure that they have your contact information we'll cause those are going to be great numbers to have when you do have some type of an incident, no matter how small that is.
One of the things that we're working on here in Fort Worth is making sure that we have a fire representative at the table in the local fusion centers. Those fusion centers will provide a tremendous amount of information about threat levels. Just during the recent elections people were concerned about possible rioting starting back up again.
Our fusion centers provided us information that the threat level at the local level was pretty low, but that goes back to relationships and how important it is that, you know the uh ASAC or the SAC, and a ATF or FBI and make sure that you've got those guy's number in your phone when you need it.
Bob Keys, Retired Battalion Chief of FDNY: [00:10:10] Chief, could you explain a little bit more about fusion center that might not be a term that everybody's familiar with?
Assistant Fire Chief Homer Robertson: [00:10:15] Chris is certainly a better resource on that than I am, but these fusion centers, they're putting that together in intelligence a number of different sources. Uh, and again, that goes kind of goes back to the relationship thing is they're talking to people they know around the country and stuff that the federal and state level might be pushing out on potential terrorists.
So, we've been putting one of our arson investigators, arson bomb tech guys in there and they constantly research and they may be looking at social media posts. They may be getting that information from the from the state or federal level, and then trying to push that down to areas that there might be concerns about. So Chris can probably give you a much better vision of the fusion centers than I can.
Special Agent In-Charge Chris Combs: [00:11:06] Sure. Depending on what state you're in or what city, every state has fusion centers, and many of the larger metropolitan areas have a local fusion center. They're really good for taking in intelligence across the spectrum, whether it's terrorism or criminal or fire intelligence and putting it together and sharing it with members of that community.
It's certainly a place where a lot of intelligence has come together. I think there's been a journey there were originally, they came up after 911- really focused on terrorism, but they've brought in their aperture now to look at a lot of criminal things. Making it not just law enforcement, but the fire service and frankly, the health system.
So depending on where you are, your fusion center could have a different focus, but I think it's a great place to have a connection to get that immediate intelligence. And then really in partnership with that, or the joint terrorism task forces to get that really strategic operational intelligence of threats that we're watching. Obviously that's very specific to terrorism, which is why I think a fusion center connection and a JTTF connection is important so that the fire departments are covering all the spectrums and seeing all the intelligence.
Bob Keys, Retired Battalion Chief of FDNY: [00:12:28] Excellent!
Chris, you shared with me earlier that the FBI did security in New York City for fire departments and for the police departments on their precincts and our firehouses during the riots that were going on there. Can you explain more about how the FBI has stepped up and helped out these big cities that are being overwhelmed with not only COVID, but then civil unrest?
Special Agent In-Charge Chris Combs: [00:12:50] One of the things the FBI tried to do with the riots was figure out how do we most help our local partners and whether that was fire or police, obviously the FBI is not riot control. We can't walk the front line, but what we did in a number of places was figure out what can we do to put more police on the front line?
So in New York City, we helped on security for precincts, so the cops could go to the frontline and we would hold the precincts for them in LA area. We became security for some of the fire service there, so the police didn't have to do it and they could push forward. It was something here in San Antonio we offered the police department.
Hey, if things got bad, we were willing to ride the firetrucks so that the cops could go to the front line. I think one of the things that we really pushed that not everybody knew. And I pushed this through the IAFC was that in a riot interference with police and or fire is a federal offense.
So that gave us the jurisdiction and the ability to protect the firefighters. Because if you attack the firefighter during civil disorder, that could be charged as a federal offense. Out in Portland, some of the medics were fire medics, and they were shot with a slingshot shooting, marbles and BBs.
And we prosecuted that as an assault under a federal statute on a firefighter cause it was commissioned during the civil unrest. So there are ways that we were looking to help our partners who were really on the front line there and that's our plan going forward. I don't think we're done with the civil unrest, a shooting anywhere in the country could spark that flame.
So I think still need to focus on that.
Bob Keys, Retired Battalion Chief of FDNY: [00:14:43] Thank you for sharing that.
So on a previous podcast Sacramento Fire Department, Chief Chris Costamagna told us about a, protocol they had in place where they had 30 police officers responding with the fire trucks to make sure that the scene was safe for firefighters before they could go and put out a fire, an active structure fire.
Chief, do you see similar SOPs like that across Texas? Is that becoming more and more common?
Assistant Fire Chief Homer Robertson: [00:15:07] Yes. We have for a number of years had some notations in there where we specifically asked for police to work with us as force protection, either in our active shooter SOPs or civil unrest SOPs. We know that we have to have some force protection there because there are going to be some places that we need to go that may not have been cleared by the initial law enforcement response, and to those scenarios, a lot of times, are very fluid. Your working some kind of a place related shooting, or just a normal every day assault and big crowds start to gather. So we have some very specific things that we like to use PD to come in and give us that kind of protection for.
We've been working on our active shooter stuff for a long time, but fires a weapon ties right in with that and it's just an extension of that process.
Bob Keys, Retired Battalion Chief of FDNY: [00:16:04] And you shared with me recently Chief that Fort Worth we put aerial streams above maybe from a block away in an active shooter or fire as a weapon situation where the scene is not safe.
You've also recently shared with us that Fort Worth has purchased a firefighting robot. Can you share with our listeners a little bit about that and what its capability is?
Assistant Fire Chief Homer Robertson: [00:16:23] Yes. So one of the things that we've really looked at, I think anytime you have a hostage situation, I think there's probably always a threat for fire to be used as part of that.
Unless you've really sat down and visited with your law enforcement partners, what are you going to do about that if they set the building on fire? You may have people sheltered in place in close proximity to that building. So we started looking at that and from a program that we put together and Mr. Combs was involved in that is one of our guest speakers is we did a Fire as a Weapons Conference, one of the first ones in the country that just focused on fire as a weapon and impacts whether it was wildland, whether it was in a structure fire, the use of drones, but during that discussion, and I think Chris remembers this, is that we really talked a lot about how do we apply water to a building.
Do we have to hand over our hand lines to law enforcement. Do we have enough protection to be able to do that put firefighters that aren't really trained to do that into tactical situation. So one of the solutions that we worked on here in Fort Worth was the purchase of a firefighting robot.
Our robot is a tracked vehicles called the RS1. There's currently two of them in the United States, one in City of Los Angeles, just put one in service and they've used there's a couple of times, kind of as a mobile master stream. Ours is a smaller version of that. Also about 1,250 gallons, a minutes built by a company called Howe and Howe that is a subsidiary of Bell Textron, the helicopter folks and so it'll float 1,250 gallons a minute. It's a tracked vehicle will drag its own supply line. So we can drive that up in front of a building and I basically own that building, at least keep it to the building of origin or, or keep it from moving to exposures without, uh, exposing our firefighters and even law enforcement to any kind of gunfire or dangers associated with that structure fire.
Bob Keys, Retired Battalion Chief of FDNY: [00:18:30] How about armored vehicles that have the capability of squirting waters, being able to do that same kind of thing. Do either of you have any knowledge of use of armored vehicles for firefighting?
Special Agent In-Charge Chris Combs: [00:18:45] Yeah. I can tell you certain owned vehicle manufacturers have the ability to put a monitor on the top so that you could have a master stream, operated remotely from within the armored vehicle during hostile time.
I think that's important. I love the robot idea because if you look at a complex terrorist attack, let's say in a hotel or in a high rise, you know, there's a lot of concern there that the terrorist could like the first floor in fire, let's say in a hotel, which could really stop law enforcement and then they can go up the stairs and start killing people like they did in India in Mumbai. So I think the robot's a fantastic idea. We've looked at operations here where we do joint FBI/ fire service SOPs to maybe mount one of those monitors. You can take it off. It's not mounted permanently in a couple of configurations to some armored vehicles. So that we can maybe get that in there, suppress the fire enough. So the police could go in and do tactical resolution.
I believe as much as possible people should do their primary tasks. So police should do the -stop the bad guys - and fire should put the fire out. What we gotta do is figure out how do we combine those skillsets to allow fire, to fight fires where it, it could be a tactical situation.
I think the robot does that. I think putting the monitor on an army vehicle can do that. I think there's been a lot of progress made really on the rest task force concept with the active shooter where fire and police go in together. I think if we can take some of those lessons and some of those SOPs, we could convert that over to fire as a weapon and figure out how do we do that, where law enforcement is in charge of the safety and security of the firefighters, but they're still putting the fires out.
So I think there's a lot of great work that was done on active shooter that we now need to carry over into fire as a weapon on working in partnership.
Assistant Fire Chief Homer Robertson: [00:21:03] I agree a 100% Chris that those things marry up so well, there shouldn't be any reason that we can't take those concepts and use them for either type of incident, because more than likely that active shooter could very well turn into a fire or weapon or, vice versa.
Bob Keys, Retired Battalion Chief of FDNY: [00:21:20] Thank you, gentlemen.
Chris, you made a statement to me yesterday that it's very important that we take advantage of the calm now. Can you expand on that?
Special Agent In-Charge Chris Combs: [00:21:34] Sure. Again, we were all focused on the civil unrest now things have calmed down, but I think we got to use this calm to get back into our planning cycle with fire as a weapon, either used in civil disturbance, or again fire as a weapon used in a terrorist capacity.
One of the things that we are concerned about, we stopped thinking about terrorism because we had other priorities, which again was appropriate. But I already mentioned in July ISIS put out a English video talking about using fire as a weapon. And when you look at ISIS homegrown extremist attacks through 2020, I'm not sure that a lot of people even remember, cause they were so distracted, that we had a number of ISIS attacks.
We had two in May, we had one in June inspired by ISIS, not carried out by them. So that's still happening and I think we have to use this calm now to focus a little bit of our thoughts on, Hey, that may come back. You know, we still got to think about fire as a weapon and terrorist capacity, and we need to think about it with the civil unrest.
I think a lot of people think the election's over and then that problem has dissipated, but I would, point you to Portland, that even after the election, the anarchist there and the Antifa after Biden won the election there, they went and attacked the democratic headquarters in Portland and broke out the windows and really tore that place apart and spray painted on that building.
It's not Republican or Democrat they're they're anarchist. They don't care who it is.
Bob Keys, Retired Battalion Chief of FDNY: [00:23:34] Right.
Special Agent In-Charge Chris Combs: [00:23:34] So there's still a threat there. It's not dissipated just because, you know, Biden won and Trump lost. That's not the seed of this. The seed of it is, is anarchy. And I think that's going to continue.
Bob Keys, Retired Battalion Chief of FDNY: [00:23:48] Right.
Assistant Fire Chief Homer Robertson: [00:23:49] And Chris makes a great point when he's talking about the ASIS video. I have not seen that, but I'm gonna try to get some information on it. But, and I think the reason that ISIS uses the fire as a weapon concept is that you have to remember, there is only so many sophisticated terrorists that can do, you know, we spend a lot of time thinking about dirty bombs or any of that, you know, at IEDs, anybody can be a terrorist with a gallon of gas and a ladder and impose a tremendous amount of damage and death and destruction. And so they do that because those inspired attacks don't have to be too sophisticated in order to be effective.
Chris. Can you agree with that?
Special Agent In-Charge Chris Combs: [00:24:41] I completely agree. We all know and in some extent, right, you hate to talk about it cause you don't want to give instructions to the bad guys, but you also educate the good guys. I think anyone in the fire service knows what could happen if you like the first floor lobby of a hotel on fire, that's going to bring law enforcement to a real standstill. And what that does above the fire floor could really affect more casualties than many of the traditional ideas that terrorists have.
I think the other thing that we've clearly seen in the ISIS messaging, and this goes back even years, you know, it's, it's getting harder and harder for ISIS inspired people to conduct very complex attacks.
And I think we've seen it, especially in Europe. The best attacks are frankly, the easiest where one guy jumps into a truck and can mow over 80 people. Or, you know, like you said, I remember being in New York for that happy lands, fire. One guy with a dollar worth of gasoline ended up killing 87 people in a nightclub.
So I don't think we need to worry as much on the complex. If it's complex, frankly, there's a lot of opportunity for the FBI and law enforcement to find out and get in the middle of it. In today's world, where we're watching everything and we have so many trip wires.
I tell you what's really concerning to the FBI is the one guy who wakes up in his basement, says today's the day and goes and buys a dollars worth of gas. There's no way anybody in law enforcement is going to get in the middle of that until the destruction has already occurred.
So I think you bring up a good point, chief and Hey, I used to be a WMD guy. I'm not sure we need to train on dirty bombs and all kinds of crazy complex scenarios. I think we need to train on easy things. Like somebody lights up a lobby or somebody drives a truck through a crowd, and now we have a mass casualty event or one guy lights up a nightclub. That's what I think the fire service and the police service will see in the future. Cause it's that easy and frankly, I'm not sure that any of us law enforcement can stop something like that before it happens.
Assistant Fire Chief Homer Robertson: [00:27:01] Right. Great point. Great point.
Bob Keys, Retired Battalion Chief of FDNY: [00:27:04] I think the one big takeaway, I hope we walk away with is a heightened level of awareness about the multiple dangers that can, they can encounter at a typical structure fire or hotel fire - even a car and a gas station. The opportunities for terrorists are limitless and we need to keep ourselves ever vigilant. On the alert.
My one other big takeaway, I hope we see in the next couple of months, Chris, I hope you report back to us and find out that not just 14 fire departments are members of their JTTF, but 400 have signed up and have a relationship with the FBI with law enforcement, with ATF and all working in synergy to keep not only firefighters safer, but law enforcement officers safer.
Thank you guys both very, very much. I think the information you've shared is tremendously valuable and will make a difference for firefighters. Thanks again for taking time out of your increasingly busy days and for your service to the community.
Have a great day.