Opinion

Firefighters as spies

Firefighters have always been admired icons of public service, a reputation greatly enhanced by the performance of New York City firefighters on 9-11. Now, however, the Department of Homeland Security may try to turn big-city firefighters into unwelcome snoops.

Unlike police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel don't need warrants to enter someone's home. Homeland Security officials believe firefighters would be useful in spotting behavior that could indicate terrorist activity or planning.

As part of a program started a year ago, Homeland Security gave secret clearances to nine New York fire chiefs. Under the program, firefighters would be asked to look for signs of terrorist activity when they respond to emergency calls or inspect buildings. If the program is successful, the government hopes to expand it to other major metropolitan areas.

In defending the program, Homeland Security officials offer a simplistic cartoon scenario: Firefighters stumble across a room full of rocket-propelled grenades during a routine inspection.

"It's a no-brainer," said Jack Tomarchio, a senior official in Homeland Security's intelligence division. He thinks the police, the fire department and the intelligence community ought to know about that, and who could disagree?

But the notion of requiring firefighters, as part of their jobs, to spy on and report the daily comings and goings of American citizens is more troubling. Who would determine the limits of what gets reported to authorities?

The job of firefighters is to educate the public about fire hazards, put out fires and protect and rescue people threatened by fires. Including spying in that job description could interfere with their ability to perform their essential duties. It also might make people more reluctant to report a fire, which could have disastrous results.

Those are the practical considerations. The legal problems are just as thorny.

To do their jobs effectively, firefighters and medical technicians need to be able to enter private property without a warrant. But they do so with the understanding that the privilege should not be misused as a legal loophole to abrogate citizens' constitutional rights against unwarranted search and seizure.

The Bush administration tried a similar tack in 2002 when it proposed that other workers with access to private homes -- postal carriers, telephone repairmen, meter readers and others -- be asked to report suspicious behavior to the FBI. The public outcry, however, put an end to that idea.

Americans are willing to sacrifice some privacy and put up with inconveniences in the name of national security. In fact, they already do. The government now searches our belongings before we board planes; monitors our phone calls and e-mails; and checks our names against terrorist watch lists.

But at some point, sacrificing our liberties in the name of security becomes self-defeating. We can't be secure in our own homes if every move is secretly monitored by the government.

We need to draw the line at turning firefighters into spies.

Firefighters should not be asked to add spying on citizens to their already daunting duties.

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