"We're there to help people, and by discovering these type of events, we're helping people," said New York City Fire Chief Salvatore Cassano. "There are many things that firefighters do that other law enforcement or other agents aren't able to do." He added, "A normal person that doesn't have this training wouldn't be looking for it."
Cassano would not discuss specifics, but he did say that some terrorism-related information has been passed along to law enforcement since firefighters and officers began the training three years ago. "They've had some hits," Cassano said. "It's working."
Separately, the fire services in Washington, D.C., Phoenix and Atlanta have also been receiving terrorism-related intelligence training. Los Angeles County provides intelligence training so firefighters and inspectors can spot dangerous chemicals or other materials that could be used in bombs. And the fire service is also represented in at least 13 state and regional intelligence "fusion" centers across the country - where local, state and federal agencies share information about terrorism and other crimes.
In Washington, the fire service made its first foray into the intelligence world about two years ago, and now D.C. Fire/EMS has access to the same terrorism-related intelligence as the police, said Larry Schultz, an assistant fire chief in charge of operations.
D.C. firefighters and EMS providers are in 170,000 homes and businesses each year on routine calls, Schultz said.
"So we see things and observe things that may be useful to law enforcement," he said. "We can walk into your house. We don't need a search warrant." If an ambulance team shows up at a house and sees detailed maps of the District's public transit system on the wall, that's something the EMS provider would pass along, he said.
"It's the evolution of the fire service," said Bob Khan, the fire chief in Phoenix, which has created an information-sharing arrangement between the fire service and law enforcement through terrorism liaison officers.
Because firefighters are on the front lines, the fire service needs to know about intelligence that could somehow affect what they do, said Gregory Cade, who as head of the U.S. Fire Administration is the nation's top fire chief.
If, for example, Washington is hosting an International Monetary Fund meeting where there will be a large group of protesters and a truckload of gasoline has been stolen in Baltimore, firefighters need to know about intelligence from overseas that terrorists are trying to make explosive devices out of gasoline, Schultz said.
"Getting appropriate, actionable intelligence is important for a fire chief in deciding what to do and how to allocate resources and to know what's going on," Cade said. "No one is expecting us to be the analyst person who is sitting down, trying to connect all of this stuff together and determining, 'Oh, yes, this looks like a terrorist plot.' "
But Cade said that until recently, there's been no mechanism for fire departments to share what they learn with law enforcement and intelligence analysts who could use it.
"If in the conduct of doing their jobs they come across evidence of a crime, of course they should report that to the police," said the ACLU's German. "But you don't want them being intelligence agents."
It's of particular concern for communities already under law enforcement scrutiny. "Do we want them to fear the fire department as well as the police?" German asked.
The Detroit metropolitan area, which has one of the largest concentrations of Arab Americans in the country, does not conduct this type of intelligence training, nor does it plan to. "That's a touchy area," said Detroit's deputy fire commissioner, Seth Doyle. Detroit firefighters do receive training about hazardous materials, but not the details that New York and D.C. firefighters are now on the lookout for.