Post-Marathon Bombing, Cambridge First-Responders ‘Train Constantly’ in Counter-Terrorism

Acting Chief of Department Gerard E. Mahoney in his office at Fire Department Headquarters. Photo by Karissa Perry/BU News Service.

By Karissa Perry
BU News Service 

This article was originally published in the Cambridge Chronicle.

As the fifth anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing approaches, Cambridge Fire Department officials say they are ready for potential terrorist activity thanks to grant-funded training and equipment, inter-department collaboration and specialized classes.

Cambridge is considered a “high-risk” area by the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), a funding program by the Department of Homeland Security that assists in “building an enhanced and sustainable capacity to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from acts of terrorism,” according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Acting Fire Chief Gerry Mahoney said there is no confirmed number on how many terrorist attacks or threats the city has received because many go unknown. However, post-Marathon bombing, the department has “ramped up a couple of different things.”

In the past, he said threats have been received that are directed at Cambridge Public Schools and universities, as well as notification from law enforcement whenever there is “chatter” pertaining to potential terrorist activity.

An ‘all-hazards approach’

Mahoney added terrorism does not just come from overseas or from groups allegedly associated with radical versions of Islam.

“In fact, we have homegrown terrorism,” said Mahoney, a member of the department for 35 years. He added that attacks can happen any time and any place.

“Take the politics out of it. Take the whole Muslim, geo-political components out of it,” he advised.

According to Mahoney, the Fire Department takes an “all-hazards approach” in training from terrorist-related activity to rescuing people from difficult conditions, like swift-flowing water.

“We’re branched out to all these things because that’s the fire service in the 21st century,” he said.

What the funding provides

The UASI program funds training and equipment, while the Department of Fire Services (DFS), a state agency, provides additional “training for firefighters, fire prevention, fire code enforcement, education to the general public, and oversees fire investigations,” according to the DFS.

Thomas Cahill, chief of operations and the chief fire investigator, concurred that the city is considered a “prime-target area” for terrorist activity because of the mass-transit, major universities and biotech industry located in Kendall Square.

Perry_2B_FireDepartment_Infographic by Karissa Perry

“There’s a lot of potential in the city of Cambridge but we have been fortunate in that not a lot has touched the city itself,” he said in a telephone interview.

Cahill is responsible for “investigating and overseeing” all fires and explosions that occur within the city and, along with the rest of the Investigation Unit, works closely with the Cambridge Police Department. He said the two “train together constantly” and detectives are assigned to work with them during fire and explosion investigations.

“It’s really a combined effort on both parties in terms of what we do,” he said.

During the City Council meeting on Feb. 26, the Fire Department received two grants in conjunction with the UASI: one for training and the other for Dive Rescue Team and Marine Unit equipment. The Boston area’s total UASI allocation for 2017 was $1.72 million according to FEMA.

Mahoney said the program has especially helped ensure efficient communication between different public safety agencies.

“That portable radio I have there, I can talk to other public safety agencies throughout Greater Boston without picking up a phone and a huge part of that is due to UASI-based investment in radio infrastructure,” he said, pointing to the radio on his desk during an interview with the Chronicle.

The state-run DFS offers additional assistance, providing training and continuing education courses. The agency has programs on counter-terrorism operations, so that first responders can recognize a scene “in which a device has been used” and can respond to “active-threat” incident, DFS Public Information Officer Jennifer Mieth explained in a telephone interview.

Mieth said two of the courses offered – learning to recognize homemade explosives and post-blast investigation – were “building on the post-Marathon.”

The Marathon bombings had a major impact on the Department, Mahoney noted.

“It had an effect and I think it was another event that drove home the lesson that you have to be extremely vigilant,” he said.

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