Burn After Reading: How Some Tech-Savvy Firefighters May Be Putting New Yorkers in Danger

Are online FDNY study sites playing with fire?

The Buckeye Pipeline in Queens. Seems safe enough. (Wikimedia Commons)

One thing all these sites have in common is a reliance on the FDNY manuals.

Like LtQuestions.com, FireTestTaking.com has a revolving bank of questions, sort of virtual flashcards, which cost $24.95 a month, or $150 for the year. Randomized tests of 10, 15, 25, 50 or 100 questions are available. As on LtQuestions.com, a log-in is required only to access the tests themselves, not the documents behind them, and anyone can sign up for a log-in.

Fire C.A.P.T.A.I.N. NYC is arguably the most advanced. Short for Computer Aided Promotional Tools with Advanced Integrated Networking, the ice-blue, Tron-like site provides access to a special program designed by two tech-savvy firemen, captains Vincent Moore and Alan Macleod. Among the options the program offers is “multicolor highlighting, in-line notes, ‘hot buttons’ (user-defined highlighted keywords).” There are also the standard practice tests with progress tracking and an online chat function.

“I hate studying!” Mr. Macleod wrote in an article Fire Engineering magazine in March, explaining his inspiration for the site. “It’s the reason I’m not an astronaut.”

A new web-based app for mobile users just launched.

The vast majority of information contained on these sites is mundane. They all deal with some aspect of the job, from the routine (“EV18 Hoist Portable Ladder to the Roof,” “Haz-Mat 7 Decontamination Procedures”) to the obscure (“AUC 207a12 Airtrain System,” “306 ‘Fire Cap’ Children’s Assistance Program”).

Still, plenty of sensitive material is available. For instance, the sites publish access plans and rescue procedures for the subway tunnels running under the East River. There are maps of gas pipes, including those serving JFK Airport. Remember the Buckeye Pipeline, which a group of would-be terrorists tried to attack in 2007? It’s there, along with maps of the Con Edison facilities at Hunter’s Point, also served by a gas line.All a click away, without even a credit card or a background check.

Capt. Loftus said his team notified the Fire Department before starting his site. Capt. Macleod told The Observer he had not directly reached out, but people knew about it. No one at FireTestTaking.com could be reached.

So how threatening is this material? “It’s out there,” Captain Macleod said. “You think we’re handing it over to them in an easier fashion? I don’t really think so. Maybe we could insist on some proof that you’re a firefighter.”

Professor King had a simple solution. “Really, all these guys need to do is put it behind a paywall,” he said. “Maybe they could require these guys’ FDNY PINs, make sure they work for the department.”

Capt. Loftus, while appreciating the gravity of the situation, chuckled at the idea.

“Behind a paywall?” he said. “What’s that gonna do, the guy can still get it. I’ve got $96 from a terrorist, though. I’d feel terrible for that. Honestly, that never crossed my mind. We just thought of the access, because you know, the books are all over the place. Any guy could go buy the books. You want the books, to buy them, you don’t have to show an ID to buy them. It’s like a hundred bucks.”

“You know, the way I look at things, where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Peter Romaniuk, a fellow at the Center on Global Terrorism Cooperation and a professor at John Jay stressed the difficult balancing act faced by governments in this day and age. “Generally in this field, people acknowledge it’s impossible to reduce this vulnerability to zero,” he said. “That would impose constraints on a society that a democracy wouldn’t want to tolerate. The trick becomes managing the risk, and certainly the record in terms of attacks is quite good in the post-9/11 period.”

This is the position of the Fire Department. Mr. Gribbons, the FDNY spokesman, recalled the days when people used to photocopy the materials to save on them. He also noted that the department has shared its study materials with other departments. The message was, this information is everywhere, it is out there, not just online. If someone wants it, they can get it.

Not that any of this poses any real threat in the eyes of the department. “These books, as far as I know, there’s nothing top-secret in them,” he said.

That said, when The Observer contacted Mr. Gribbons a second time to see if anything had been done, he said attorneys were asking the sites to remove the materials (which, after all, belong to the city). A day later, though, the information was still online. To borrow the phrase, is this a case of familiarity breeding complacency?

“It’s a trade-off,” Professor King said. “You want your firefighters to know this stuff, but that also means the information is out there for other people to use.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that with a 60 out of 100 on a sample test, The Observer would have been lucky to have made the rank of sergeant. There is no such rank in the Fire Department. We regret the error.

Burn After Reading: How Some Tech-Savvy Firefighters May Be Putting New Yorkers in Danger