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Who is the 'Real' Terrorist in the U.S.?

Op Ed By, Robert Avsec

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broke fire department

Consider for a moment what has happened since 9/11 to fight the “war on terror” — creation of DHS and TSA, hundreds of billions of dollars spent, laws adopted and changed, new training, new equipment, and new ways to do our jobs. With all that and more, we’ve suffered 59 terrorism-related deaths on United States soil since that day1.But even that number (59) is a bit deceiving as further analysis of the data reveals thirteen of those deaths were the result of the “Beltway Snipers”, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, during their killing rampage through Alabama, Virginia, and Maryland in September and October 2002. Those killings, and the majority of the remaining “terrorist attacks” since September 11, 2001 have been perpetrated by domestic terrorists: white supremacists, environmental activists, and opponents to abortion.

Is it safer to:
   1.   Walk through the woods
   2.   Take a drive on the highway
   3;   Live life without fear of death or injury from a fire
   4;   Live life without fear of terrorism acts
   5;   Visit the hospital for treatment

If you picked anything other than #4, you’ve “bought into” the idea that terrorists, especially terrorist acts by foreign nationals, are the greatest threat to your safety and security. Interesting, isn't it? We’ve spent hundreds of billions of dollars on Homeland Security and fighting terrorism—and the threat is not there, at least not on U.S. soil. The possibility, yes. The probability, no. The real terrorist in the U.S. is not a foreign national or a homegrown white supremacist. The real “terrorist” in the U.S. is fire. How many fire-related deaths—civilian and fire service personnel—have occurred in roughly the same period (September 2001 to the present)?

For the latest reporting period (Years 2005-2014), the U.S. Fire Administration reports that 3243 civilians (median number for those deaths) and roughly 100 firefighters die from fires each year2. (Yes, I know that line-of-duty fire firefighter deaths have many causes, but the fact remains that if a fire doesn’t happen, then most of those deaths do not happen, either). So, do the math: 3343 fire-related deaths (civilians and firefighters) x 15 years = 50,145 fire-related deaths. That’s almost the entire population of Charleston, WV (where I live) which is about 54,000 people.

Also, calculate into the equation the fire-related injuries (and the cost of medical treatment and rehabilitation), property losses, damage to local economies, etc. For the period of 2005-2014, the median property loss figure alone is $11.7 billion ($12.9 billion when all years are adjusted to 2014 dollars)3. Once again, doing the math (using those median figures) we see that fire-related property loss for 2002-2017 would be:

Median annual fire loss ($11.7 billion) x 15 years = $175.5 billion total fire loss
$193.5 billion using 2014 dollars)

One security spending figure that isn’t well-known is the amount the U.S. government has spent to date on “homeland security.” This is because homeland security funding flows through literally dozens of federal agencies and not just through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). For example, of the $71.6 billion requested for “homeland security” in FY2012, only $37 billion is funded through DHS. A substantial part is funded through the Department of Defense – $18.1 billion in FY2012 – and others, including Health and Human Services ($4.6 billion)and the Department of Justice ($4.1 billion)4.

How much are we spending in federal dollars to eliminate preventable fires? With the exception of the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program ($310.5 million in 2016), the federal funding to fight the fire terrorist pales in comparison to that provided to law enforcement agencies across the U.S.

What could several hundred billion dollars do to eliminate preventable fires in the U.S. since 2001? Probably a lot. But then, our federal government is good at throwing stacks of money after the promoted key word term of “terrorism” with virtually no accountability for the dollars spent and used (How many small-town law enforcement agencies have become “armed to the teeth” with terrorism-related funding from the Department of Homeland Security?)5. But before we start “banging the drum” for more federal support to prevent fires, let’s make sure we don’t follow the path of law enforcement. Local law enforcement agencies and their budgets have become heavily dependent upon federal dollars for their operations.

Commonly is attributed to local law enforcement agencies receiving grants to hire additional police officers. Those grants—usually about three years in length—stipulate that if awarded, the local jurisdiction must make provisions during that period to maintain those hired police officers for at least one year. Too many law enforcement agencies—from large cities like Boston to smaller communities in rural America—have failed to do that6.

Instead, they either lay off those police officers or seek additional grant funding to “free up” budget money in other areas to pay those salaries and benefits. The fire service would do well to approach spending federal dollars toward systematic improvements as I wrote in my article, “Let’s Really Starting “Thinking Outside the Box” for Fire Protection in the USA”. The article outlines five areas where the fire service and their communities greatly benefit when using a different approach to preventing fires:

   1.   Engineering
   2.   Enforcement
   3.   Education
   4.   Economic Incentives; and
   5.   Emergency Response

In my opinion, the topics are in order of priority. Not only do we need to hire more firefighters, we also need to start changing the public’s attitudes—and our own—about fires, and creating an environment where fires never start. And if they do start, they are quickly extinguished by a fire sprinkler system. Now that is money well spent, no?

   1. "Terrorist attacks and related incidents in the United States." Johnston, W, FEMA, 2014.
   2. "Fire Loss in the U.S. 2002-2014. U.S. Fire Administration, 2015.
   3. same table.
   4. "U.S. Security Spending Since 9/11." The National Priorities Project.
   5. "Federal Law Enforcement Grants and Crime Rates: No Connection Except for Waste and Abuse." The Heritage Foundation.
   6. same article.

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