By Tim Holman
In Monroe County, N.Y., two firefighters were shot and killed and two others injured at a working structure fire. Cincinnati (Ohio) firefighters were shot at, but thankfully not injured, while responding to a fire in the university area. A Miami firefighter was shot at while he was checking hydrants in his district. Two Virginia firefighter/EMTs were stabbed while assisting an accident victim. A volunteer firefighter in New York was shot when he approached a victim of an auto accident. The list can go on and on.
This is the new threat facing our nation's firefighters — one that is both unexpected and disturbing. Firefighters are becoming targets of ambush, assaults and murder; 750,000 firefighters are assaulted each year. According to the Department of Labor, 52% of the EMTs operating in the field have been assaulted. According to the Angels of Mercy Survey, 80% of the firefighters surveyed stated they have been assaulted while on the job.
But why? Why are the very people who are called to help those in need suddenly becoming the target for violence? There are those who see firefighters as a persons of authority, an extended arm of the government. Those that resent authority may initiate acts of violence toward the firefighter or EMT.
As the economy continues to struggle people become more and more disparate. The firefighter is a soft target. ALS engines and medics units are easy targets since everyone knows they are not armed. In addition, fire stations usually are gun-free zones making them a logical target for those that wish to do harm.
A sociopath is defined as a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood. Sociopaths may have the desire to kill and bring about fame — and killing firefighters create a high-profile crime with large body counts.
So what can the command staff do to help combat this growing concern? First, firefighters need to be taught situational awareness concerning possible assaults or ambush. Teach them to recognize bad a situation before it occurs. Consider "what-if" drills that help firefighters expect the unexpected. Keeping there guard up in any situation encountered. It is not meant to make the firefighter paranoid it is intended to make them safe. The firefighter must be aware of his/her surroundings at all times and in all situations.
It is also important for firefighters to have de-escalation skills. This would help firefighter talk down a volatile situation instead of allowing it to turn threatening. These skills can help in a variety of situations, especially those involving EMS where there is close contact with the patient.
Practice active shooter scenarios. These could be simulated in a variety of emergency situations, giving the firefighter the skills to retreat or seek cover. Practice escape technique. Is there an exit point if ambushed? Can the use of apparatus be used as a shield to safely escape? What if the firefighter is in a home? Do they place themselves close to an exit? In addition firefighters should be taught tactical treatment for gun shot wounds. This consists of using tourniquets and an Israeli trauma dressing to control severe bleeding. Depending on the location of a wound the firefighter can bleed to death in just a matter of minutes. They may need these skills to treat themselves or other firefighters before they can be brought to a safe location.
Body armor is another possibility. Some organizations are already equipping their EMTs with this protection. Firefighters also should be considered and yes this will be an additional burden for fire operations but it provides added protection in the event of an active shooting situation. Care should be taken in choosing the right armor to afford the best protection. In most situations a Level IIIA vest should be the minimum standard.
There are several fire organizations around the country that have armed their firefighters and EMTs. (We will not name them as they do not wish to be identified). Although this is a highly controversial topic it is one that should be explored. Some have implemented this process officially while others have chose to "don't ask, don't tell" in reference to carrying guns while on duty. There are pros and cons to this form of protection. If implemented properly and with the right training, it can be very effective since the firefighter is no longer seen as a soft target that cannot resist an assault.
Unfortunately none of these interventions will eliminate the threat totally. But it may provide added protection for the firefighter. Many believe that assaults on firefighters and EMTs will continue to escalate. Our world is changing and what used to be the unthinkable is now reality. No department is exempt. Fire administrators and the frontline firefighter must engage in serious dialogue to formulate effective plans for keeping our people safe.