DHS to firefighters: snoop on emergency victims for evidence of terrorism

The Department of Homeland Security is asking firefighters to snoop around in homes they're called to for emergencies. The DHS likes the idea because firefighters aren't bound by pesky warrants and probable cause and can therefore report on suspicious material like blueprints, anti-American literature, and potential bomb-making materials (e.g., the bedrooms of every friend I had, circa 1985). Firefighters are just the latest legion of potential snoops the DHS is leaning on -- they've also asked meter-readers to peer into our windows and sheds to find evidence of bad-guy-ery. This stuff doesn't work and won't work: amateur pecksniffs snitching on their neighbors just flood cops with bad intel, and turn the country into East Germany, a land where everyone is on alert lest they say the wrong thing and get turned in to the secret police. Link (via Digg)

See also: War on the Unexpected -- Schneier's dynamite essay on the War on Terror

Update: From the comments, andrewslayman writes:

As a volunteer firefighter, I will say that turning firefighters into spies is a bad idea.

If criminals have to worry that by calling the fire department they are also calling the DHS, they may be less likely to call in the first place, putting lives and property at further risk. If they do call, they may treat firefighters as hostile parties, placing firefighters' lives at risk beyond the normal hazards of the job.

If firefighters have to worry that each call may be a hostile one, that will distract them from the job at hand--saving lives in immediate peril--and could delay response time in a business where a few seconds or minutes often does make the difference between life and death.

The list of "suspicious" things that firefighters are supposed to be on the lookout for includes cameras, photographs, maps, and chemicals. In my professional life I am a photographer, so my house is full of cameras, photographs, maps, and chemicals (not to mention rubber gloves, an organic vapor mask, etc.)--all perfectly legal--that might fit the DHS's definition of "suspicious."

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  1. turn the country into East Germany, a land where everyone is on alert lest they say the wrong thing and get turned in to the secret police.

    You might want to rewrite this sentence in past tense, because last i checked (around 1989) there was no “East Germany” (German Democratic [sic] Republic) anymore.

  2. Here’s the thing- if a paramedic or firefighter shows up to a house and sees a stack of $100 bills, a scale, and a pile of white powder on the kitchen table, don’t you think he’d call in the police without having to be ordered to? Do we really think that someone would see bomb making materials in a suspicious looking house and NOT call the police?

    What worries me is that this training program crosses the line between clarifying a citizens’ duty to the public safety, and the police specifically using “contractors” to bypass the 4th ammendment.

    There’s a big difference between: =ring= Firefighter says he saw a whole bunch of explosisives at this address- can we have a warrant?; and Hi, Mr. Ali, we’re with the “fire department”, and we’re here to do a, well, let’s call it a “safety check”.

    Like most laws, this is the sort of program that is every bit as safe as the person implementing it. It gives more power to whoever’s “in charge”, and we all know what power does…

  3. As a volunteer firefighter, I will say that turning firefighters into spies is a bad idea.

    If criminals have to worry that by calling the fire department they are also calling the DHS, they may be less likely to call in the first place, putting lives and property at further risk. If they do call, they may treat firefighters as hostile parties, placing firefighters’ lives at risk beyond the normal hazards of the job.

    If firefighters have to worry that each call may be a hostile one, that will distract them from the job at hand–saving lives in immediate peril–and could delay response time in a business where a few seconds or minutes often does make the difference between life and death.

    The list of “suspicious” things that firefighters are supposed to be on the lookout for includes cameras, photographs, maps, and chemicals. In my professional life I am a photographer, so my house is full of cameras, photographs, maps, and chemicals (not to mention rubber gloves, an organic vapor mask, etc.)–all perfectly legal–that might fit the DHS’s definition of “suspicious.”

    No doubt there are many other professions with whose details I am not familiar and which I, as an unpaid DHS spy, would not be able to see for what they are.

  4. @2 “Like most laws, this is the sort of program that is every bit as safe as the person implementing it. It gives more power to whoever’s “in charge”, and we all know what power does…”

    No, the program itself is the problem if Fox News is accurate. The talking head specifically says that firefighters are being trained to profile and report people who are spouting “hate speech” and show “hostility toward Americans.”

    That doesn’t just cross the line, it completely obliterates it.

  5. How this will be implemented:

    1)Most firefighters will ignore it, because they don’t want to tarnish their generally good image with snitching on everyone who has a kid that puts a Che Guevara poster on their wall or has an electronics kit on their desk.

    2) The occasional bad egg uses it to harass their ex-girlfriend’s current boyfriend.

    3) DHS uses it to excuse their own incompetence and redundancy if a terrorist suspect is linked to a house that the fire department has ever visited, even if the suspect wasn’t there at the time.

  6. I have to agree with Andrew. I’m an EMT in Washington St. We are taught that we are advocates of the patient, so even when I roll up on-scene of a car accident and smell alcohol on the breath of a driver, I’m not allowed to tell the police; only the hospital staff see my report. I know I look around the apartments and houses, but it’s certainly not for DHS or the police.

    -tfuller

  7. This is such a bad idea. Firefighters are the only public servants we have left that have respectability and that people actually like.

  8. This is so sad. A fourth grader can see that this is insane.

    Why not have meter maids interrogate pedestrians to find out if they’re terrorists?

    Or train school crossing guards to recognize plastic explosives so that they can peek in people’s car windows?

    Maybe have 911 operators ask trick questions like, “Could I have your name, address, and the name of the madras you studied at, please?”

    Totally ineffective, but it would have the by-no-means-unintended effect of getting Americans used to being spied on 24-7. It sure as hell wouldn’t catch any terrorists.

    DHS is squandering our tax dollars through incompetence. Kinda like FEMA. In my town, DHS funds are being used for things like building floats for St. Patrick Day parades, because they don’t know what else to do with the money. Take that, Osama! Erin Go Braugh!

    Meanwhile, Montana and North Dakota are getting more security funding than New York.

  9. These are efforts to ‘outsource’ DHS jobs and responsibilities to other larger public organizations, thus they gain manpower at almost no cost at the expense of things like privacy and other pesky side-effects. Think of the mooninite sign or the recent MIT girl with an LED placard and you get untrained civil servants thinking that they have found hoax devices en mass.

  10. Guilty until proven innocent.

    I would have thought the DHS would have learned their lesson after their ridiculous jump-to-conclusion in Buffalo in 2004, the arrest of Steve Kurtz. If you are not familiar with the story, when is wife suffered a heart seizure the first-responders suspected him of foul play because he was a biologist breeding various micro-organisms in his home-lab. There was no connection to his wife’s death, nor was their any connection to terrorism, but because the police don’t know science they immediately suspected foul play. When the evidence proved Kurtz’ innocence they charged him with crimes under the Patriot Act anyway.

    This kind of thing is going to cause far more false arrests than actual criminal arrests.

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  12. A lot of EMTs are fire department personnel, and they’re already not telling law enforcement about the things they see. They couldn’t do their jobs if they did. They have to know how many drinks their patient’s really had, what other drugs they’ve taken, how many people were in the car, who was driving, whether the patient is pregnant, how long the kid’s been avoiding using that arm, and so forth and so on. The only way they’re going to hear that is if they can promise their patients that the information isn’t going to go any further.

    Firemen and EMTs have to work fast, and they have their own sets of priorities. They can’t stop to find out what’s on the computer when they’re busy maintaining airways, or making sure the fire isn’t still smoldering inside the walls or the sofa.

    DHS is just going to have to do its own work.

  13. I have developed some of the computer-based training (funded by DHS) for firefighters, EMTs, and police responding to potential terrorist incidents involving hazardous materials. In all of our training, we have emphasized that the primary job of the firefighters and EMTs is to save lives. They are to do whatever they can to save lives, and preserve their own. They are not supposed to try and collect evidence, or even worry about preserving evidence, if lives are at stake.

    Now, if there is a potential criminal investigation, because someone did notice something suspicious (and we’re really talking radioactive substances, IED manuals and materials, not just cameras or electronics), the firefighters are expected to file an affidavit about what they saw, but we make it very clear that they are only to report observations and not try to draw conclusions.

  14. I think I have to agree with Halloween jack on this one. There are many protocols like this that are equally dystopian, such as in California in order to teach (or work for the district at all) you have to sign an oath to the constitution and swear that you are not a communist. Of coarse, there are probably more communist teachers than there are in just about any other profession, but it gives the district another random reason to fire someone

  15. Sure, and while they’re at it, the DHS ought to go fight fires and rescue burn victims from five-story buildings. Because you know, they’re so specialized in that sort of work. *eyeroll*

  16. im not american, but one reason i can see why the DHS would do this is the increased number off arrests.

    if it looks like terrorists are being arrested most people dont care if they get put back out and newspapers wont cover anything but the arrest.

    everyone will sleep easyer know that no terror can happend with all the arrests made, even though nobody is going to jail, and so the american people survive another era of panic without and riots.

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