The conflagration this month at west London’s Grenfell Tower, which killed a presumed 79 people, is a horrific reminder of just how devastating fire can be. While this incident appears to have been a tragic accident, it is important not to overlook the possibility of fire being used as a weapon during a terror attack or in a combat zone. The US experience in Benghazi and recent intense blazes in dense urban areas demonstrate the need for commanders to treat operating in fire environments as a critical emerging threat.
The 2012 attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi was an eye-opening event that highlighted the need for a capability to operate in burning structures. Embassy attackers deliberately lit fires with diesel, forcing security personnel and responders to negotiate fire, thick smoke, and limited visibility to try to rescue people trapped in the compound. The incident, coupled with other attacks where fire was an issue, made apparent the compounding danger of fire in combat zones, and how it can quickly complicate an already-dangerous mission.
But the danger of fire becomes an even more pressing concern when one considers the urban environments that soldiers will be regularly operating in soon. Military planners at Joint Special Operations Command are increasingly looking at ‘megacities’ – or urban areas of more than 10 million people – as an operational and tactical challenge. While there are currently about twenty of these cities, by 2025 it is expected that there will be nearly forty. Unsurprisingly, where growth outpaces the capacity of city services and other crucial prerequisites for a functioning urban area, structures are built shoddily, infrastructure is improvised, buildings are overcrowded, and safety codes are neglected or nonexistent. This is particularly true in the developing world, where US and allied forces might be called upon to respond to a natural disaster or civil insurrection.
The nightmare scenario involves a team of operators deployed to, say, a densely-populated neighborhood of Manila to respond to an assault and hostage-taking by an ISIS-affiliated group. The terrorists could light a series of fires as soldiers close in, resulting in a massive blaze that spreads quickly through the packed neighborhood. Suddenly the operators need to protect themselves from the fire while still dealing with the attackers and rescuing the hostages. A gunman motivated by robbery rather than terrorism started a fire at a Manila casino just a few weeks ago, leaving thirty-six dead. And a huge conflagration in a nearby slum left 15,000 homeless earlier this year. A future terror attack could integrate elements from both scenarios and yield difficult and deadly consequences.
GRA Maven’s Fire Operations Course was born out of the Benghazi experience, and seeks to provide fire training to US and allied special operations forces that could find themselves in similar situations. Combining expert urban fire-fighting expertise with peerless military experience gleaned from years on the tip of the counterterrorism spear, the FOC is a one-of-a-kind service. It teaches operators to understand the dynamics of different kinds of structural fires, negotiate choking smoke and zero visibility, and rescue non-ambulatory victims. Incidents today clearly indicate that dealing with fire in addition to hostile forces will be a crucial skillset that can help save lives and complete missions in future combat zones.