Fire departments are an integral part of any mass-shooting response. As such, chiefs should partner with local law-enforcement agencies that can train firefighters to respond with a higher level of situational awareness, said August Vernon, operations officer for the Forsyth County (N.C.) Office of Emergency Management. Vernon is a military veteran who served in Iraq and teaches courses on incident management and mass violence/mass shootings. FIRE CHIEF spoke with Vernon about the threat of violence to firefighters and their new role — especially fire/paramedics and EMTs — when responding to such incidents.
What are the risks facing firefighters during mass shootings?
For example, the fire department was an integral part of the Sandy Hook response effort. What we saw there is that sometimes perception with fire and EMS is that you are going to stage or standby outside the scene like you normally do on a shooting or a stabbing. But these incidents, like in Sandy Hook, the fire trucks were on the scene quickly and involved in that incident. This is not your normal incident. It is very large-scale, high impact. You may be on the scene even when it isn’t secured 100%, because it does take a long time to secure large facilities and these big scenes.
Departments need to have a very serious discussion about how to respond and recognized staging and waiting for hours is no longer an option. They are part of the response. Chiefs need to take some practical steps to address that.
What type of training is needed and how can it be funded?
First, have a discussion about how to respond internally. These incidents are typically over in 4 to 8 minutes. Four minutes can cause a lot of fatalities. So start with unified training by reaching out to law enforcement. They regularly do rapid deployment training, which also is called active shooter deployment, at their facilities. It doesn’t cost any more money because law enforcement already is doing the training. This will help, as during mass shootings it is going to take other responders and rescuers to get casualties out of the immediate danger area.
Chiefs also should consider tactical medicine support, including downed-officer rescue, buddy aid and self aid, as well as high-risk extraction training. Tactical-combat casualty care becomes essential for firefighters and EMS to be able to operate in a more hostile environment with limited equipment, because when these incidents happen, you are not going to be brining in trauma bags and stretchers. You are getting in, open airways, stopping bleeding and getting people out.
Are unarmed firefighters a liability at a mass-shooting incident?
A normal fire and EMS response requires law enforcement to provide armed escorts for theresponders. So I think we need to sit down with local agencies and ask how to respond if this happened tomorrow and look at past incidents and see what the lessons learned were. But I do think fire and EMS need to step up their training.
Should chiefs arm these tactical medics or firefighters?
I don’t know if arming firefighters is a good idea. It would take a lot of work. Law enforcement goes through hundreds of hours of training to be able to legally carry a firearm. I don’t know if that would be a solution. I do know some agencies who have tactical medics, but that requires those medics to go to peace-officer training.
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