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Arson Awareness Week Recap: Protecting Houses of Worship from Arson

June 03, 2024 11:29 AM | Anonymous

Reposted from EMR-ISAC

Each year in the first full week of May, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) observes Arson Awareness Week. This year, the USFA and the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) co-hosted a webinar with representatives from CISA entitled “Protecting Houses of Worship from Arson.” If you did not have the opportunity to participate in the webinar, the recording is now available within the NVFC’s Virtual Classroom. The recording can be accessed with a free NVFC Virtual Classroom account. The fire service can use the information from this year’s webinar to work with houses of worship in their communities to reduce the occurrence of arson and its devastating effects. The following is a summary of the key takeaways and links to highlighted resources that provide further guidance. Although arson is defined as a property crime, arson destroys much more than buildings. Arson can be economically devastating to communities and can result in loss of life. Additionally, the burning of property is only one way that fire can be weaponized. “Fire as a weapon” is defined as any time fire is used to cause chaos, destruction, damage to buildings and infrastructure, harm to people, or to force people to evacuate. Assailants use fire as a weapon to target public gathering events, critical infrastructure, and individuals directly. While incidents involving intentional fire setting are tracked nationally as “arson” incidents, tracking of incidents matching criteria where fire was used as a weapon is less robust. This year’s Arson Awareness webinar addressed national trends and risks associated with both arson and fire-as-a-weapon incidents and the implications of these incidents for houses of worship. Fire can be weaponized with little to no specialized skill or training. Precursors are inexpensive, legal and readily available. Unfortunately, this makes fire an appealing choice for those who wish to cause significant harm. Houses of worship are often locations for large public gatherings and are considered to be soft targets. These locations are easily accessible and often have minimal security, increasing their vulnerability to a variety of security risks. Due to their faith-based affiliations, houses of worship are also vulnerable to targeted attacks.

The webinar reviewed incidents of arson against houses of worship to illustrate the wide variety of motives and tactics of arsonists. Two of the most recent include a fire intentionally set inside the 100-year-old Our Lady of the Lake Roman Catholic Church in Verona, New Jersey on April 4, 2024, and an intentional fire on the grounds of the Las Olas Chabad Jewish Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on March 16, 2024. Whether criminal, ideological, financial, political, juvenile, or psychological, all arson has the end effect of instilling fear. The final segment of the webinar was presented by one of CISA’s Protective Security Advisors (PSAs). This presentation reviewed the role of a PSA as a mission partner with federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial governments, and private sector stakeholders to protect critical infrastructure. PSAs can connect houses of worship and local emergency response agencies with CISA’s resources, technical assistance, training, and funding opportunities.

The presentation emphasized the critical role of local emergency services agencies in proactively developing relationships with leadership at every house of worship in their community. Emergency responders should be involved in the planning and risk assessment process with their local houses of worship. The presentation reviews best practices to counter arson threats, such as ensuring “no trespassing signs” are posted on the property so that police are authorized to investigate suspicious behavior and collaborating with houses of worship on their emergency operations plans. The presentation highlights several CISA resources to assist with planning and assessment.

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