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The ABCs of fire as a weapon

If your agency doesn’t have a plan for how to deal with fire as a weapon, it’s time to get to work


In this Nov. 24, 2014 file photo, a police car is set on fire after the announcement of the grand jury decision in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File

Fire has been with us since the beginning of time and has always been an effective and efficient weapon. It’s viciously destructive, spreads rapidly, is difficult to contain, and is extremely lethal in dense, urban areas. It’s portable, cheap, easily concealed and easy to use. It’s especially effective as a terror weapon because humans have a deep, innate fear of it – while people may rush to the sound of guns out of curiosity, few would ever willingly go into a fire.

Fire is dramatic. Flames and smoke are not only powerful weapons, but they are also powerful images that play well on television. This combination of deadly efficiency and visual impact makes fire a perfect choice to attract the media attention terrorists need to spread their message and influence.

Despite its common nature, the law enforcement community is often ill-prepared to deal with fire. Many law enforcement officials view fire as the domain of their firefighter brethren, with no plans to become involved outside of establishing a perimeter for crowd and traffic control.

While this division of labor might work at a fire scene with no criminal component, it fails to address those situations where fire is used as a weapon by an active attacker. In this scenario, fire crews cannot assault the fire unless the criminal threat is first countered by law enforcement.

Unfortunately, law enforcement is unlikely to enter and engage the criminal until the fire is suppressed. The resulting paradox leads to confusion and indecision in many cases, giving the advantage to the attacker.

Joint Effort Required

Mike Clumpner, President of Threat Suppression, Inc., which specializes in public safety training, notes that “The day of public safety silos is over.”

We no longer operate in a world where fires are the fire department’s problem and violent actors are the police department’s problem. Instead, the nature of today’s threats – and particularly the terrorist threat – dictates that public safety professionals must cooperate, train and work together to ensure public safety.

Police and fire professionals must leverage their unique strengths and capabilities to work in a coordinated fashion to maximize their effectiveness.

To do this, it’s helpful to understand the kinds of operations that would require a joint police-fire response. Clumpner breaks these into four categories, which he calls the “ABCs of fire as a weapon.”

Each of the categories has its own special threats, considerations and requirements for law enforcement and fire personnel.


In an ambush, fire is used as a weapon to attack unwitting victims, or as bait to lure responders into an area where they will be attacked with other weapons.

For example, Clumpner notes that drug laboratories and contraband caches are frequently rigged with incendiaries to destroy evidence and permit escape, so tactical teams going into these targets must incorporate fire considerations into their planning, equipment, tactics and operations. Similar attention should be paid to security measures at police stations and other likely targets of arson or firebombing attacks.

Officers called to fire scenes should consider that the fire may have been intentionally set to lure responders into a trap, as witnessed in the Webster, New York attack on Christmas Eve in 2012, or the Memphis, Tennessee, attack on March 9, 2000.

Officers should make good use of cover and concealment during their initial approach and be mindful of cues like suspicious reporting, remote locations or downed personnel outside the location when evaluating the scene.


In barricade scenarios, fire is used by an attacker who is holding hostages (like the Branch Davidian compound, in Waco, Texas) or who is launching an attack from within, such as a sniper firing from within a burning structure.

If an assault or hostage rescue is required, police tactical teams will need to have breathing apparatus capabilities to enter the scene, and may also need a means of protecting and evacuating innocents that are rescued (fire blankets, stretchers, etc.).

Firefighters may need to work in concert with police to clear a path for entry and egress, and the situation may dictate either internal or external firefighting techniques. In either case, force protection for these firefighters will be essential, as will a clear means of communication between participants, and coordinated incident command.


In civil unrest, fire is used by attackers to destroy property, harm innocents, attack police and mask criminal activity. An important factor in this scenario is that fire incites frenzy, so it must be extinguished quickly before it encourages further violence and unrest.

Firefighters frequently need police protection to accomplish their jobs in this environment. Police need to be equipped and trained to handle fire-based attacks, such as Molotov cocktails. Mutual aid agreements with neighboring agencies must be in place ahead of time to ensure smooth execution.

Interestingly, it was determined that professional, serial arsonists were responsible for a large number of the fires set during recent civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland. These fires had been preplanned in advance of the major court decisions and announcements that precipitated the violence. This indicates the need for active intelligence and patrol efforts to defeat the fire risk in advance of high profile events that have the potential to spark unrest.


In a Complex, Coordinated Attack (CCA), fire is used as part of a symphonic attack, where multiple locations are hit simultaneously, or in close succession, to overwhelm the ability of defenders to respond rapidly and efficiently.

An iconic image of fire being used as a weapon in a CCA is the burning of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel during the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, which seemed to symbolize the government’s inability to successfully deal with the attack.

In a CCA, resources are stretched thin and priorities difficult to establish, so coordination and cooperation between police and fire leaders are essential.

Secondary attacks on responding police and fire crews must be anticipated and proper tactics used to mitigate the threat. A suitable reserve force must be established to preserve a quick reaction capability for additional attack locations.

It’s notable that terrorist publications Inspire Magazine and Rumiyah have recently emphasized the use of fire as a weapon, and past experience indicates these sources have been very influential in shaping the tactics used by terrorists. The publications note that there is a decreased risk of police detection during the planning and preparation phases if fire is the principal weapon instead of explosives or firearms. This indicates that police intelligence efforts may need to be refocused to include a greater awareness of this threat and the precursors to fire-based attacks.


These are some of the many considerations to address when planning a professional response to attacks where fire is used as a weapon. It can seem overwhelming when considering the complexities and details associated with planning for these various scenarios, but Clumpner advises public safety officials to take heart: “We have the skills and experience necessary to do this. The solution is to properly integrate our knowledge of structural firefighting with our knowledge of sound law enforcement tactics.”

Successful response requires commitment from both police and fire leaders. If your agency doesn’t have a plan for how to deal with fire as a weapon, it’s time to get to work.

NEXT: 10 things cops need to know about fire

Mike Wood is the son of a 30-year California Highway Patrolman and the author of “Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis,” the highly-acclaimed study of the 1970 California Highway Patrol gunfight in Newhall, California. Mike is an Honor Graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, a graduate of the US Army Airborne School, and a retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with over 26 years of service. He’s a National Rifle Association (NRA) Law Enforcement Division-certified firearms instructor, senior editor at, and has been a featured guest on the Excellence In Training Academy and American Warrior Society podcasts, as well as several radio and television programs. He’s grateful for the opportunity to serve and learn from the men and women of law enforcement.