Assault: A New Reality for First Responders

By Jeremy Jones

As a firefighter, you understand that you could die in a structural collapse while fighting a heavily involved building. You signed up knowing that risk exists. As a firefighter, you are aware that you may die while fighting a wildfire and your escape route gets cut off due to a wind shift. You signed up knowing that risk exists. As a paramedic, you understand that you could die while providing lifesaving care to a patient in an unstable, unsafe environment and the unthinkable happens. You signed up knowing that risk exists. As a first responder, you do not (and should not) accept dying or being seriously injured from an assault, attack, or ambush, but that is exactly what is happening to more and more first responders in today's violent society. In response, I was asked by a firefighting friend of mine to develop the curriculum for a class we entitled, "Assault- A New Reality for First Responders." Fortunately, there are a few simple actions you can take to be better prepared if someone brings a violent encounter to you, your crew, or even your loved ones.

Situational Awareness and Denial

Having the mindset of denial ("it will never happen here" or "people here don't do that") and being completely oblivious to your surroundings are killers. In this article, we are going to discuss situational awareness, as that is the foundation of all armed and unarmed self-defense classes I teach. If YOU do not see an attack unfolding or have no idea a threat is even present, the best thing your department can do for you and your family is provide a really nice funeral. Your department can protect you by providing you with the best turnout gear, the best SCBA, the best PASS device, and good training. Your situational awareness is up to YOU.

A good rule of thumb is 30 feet/360⁰. Anyone within a 30' circle of you should be considered to be inside your "awareness circle." It only takes a few seconds to scan the area to see who is within your "awareness circle" or where someone might appear from. Always trust your instincts or "gut-feeling." Think of it as expanding your size-up of your scene. The first place you should look when observing people within your "awareness circle" is their hands. Hands, hands, hands--I cannot stress that enough. While making your scan, make quick mental notes of possible avenues of escape, the location of possible weapons that you could use or could be used against you, the location of cover/concealment, etc. These mental notes are key elements to prevail a violent confrontation. Should a violent encounter take place, having a plan of action in your mind significantly reduces your reaction time to defend yourself. Remember, you have to see the threat; your brain has to recognize and comprehend that it is a threat; you have to decide a course of action; and finally take action (search the Internet for OODA Loop). On average, human reaction time is about 1.5 seconds, which is dependent on many variables. If your attacker is 10 feet away, moving towards you on a run with a meat cleaver poised over his head, 1.5 seconds is about 1.25 seconds too slow!

Red Flags

You are dispatched to a traumatic injury call and the dispatcher is unable to give you much more information. Your crew arrives at the typical middle-class home; everyone grabs the gear and heads to the front door. A young woman cautiously opens the door and you immediately notice her mouth is bleeding from the holes that used to contain three of her teeth. You instinctively begin to look for other injuries and see the dried blood below both nostrils and her left eye will soon be swollen shut. You and your crew impulsively follow her into the residence as you ask her what happened. You reach the living room and she starts to sit on the couch when she looks down and says, "My husband." Is he still in the house and, if so, where is he? If not, what is the likelihood he will be returning? Is it safer to treat your victim in the residence or do you quickly get her into the rig? Are the police on the scene? If so, are they controlling the abuser? Remember, if three cops are on the scene, so are three loaded guns! When was the last time he/she trained their handgun retention skills? In the academy? If the police arrest the abuser, will your patient suddenly turn violent in defense of him? Once you realize you are at the scene of a domestic violence incident, are all these thoughts racing through your mind? They should be! Of all the medic runs you go on, this is the one that has the most potential to turn violent and/or deadly.

You are the officer on the first-in engine of a working structure fire. Approaching the scene you can see the glow of heavy fire through the intense smoke. You quickly radio dispatch to get mutual aid rolling and start telling your crew which crosslay you want them to pull for the initial attack. The engine stops to catch the hydrant and now you can see fire venting through every window on the first floor of a two-story house. THIS is what you signed up for! The familiar rush of adrenaline begins to course through your veins. The engine is still rolling to a stop as you habitually check the seal of your face piece and reach for the door handle. Two of your men are pulling hose from the truck, so you start walking towards the door you plan to make entry through. Did you take the few seconds to really look at your fire scene? Did you see the realty sign in the front yard with "Foreclosure" across the top? Did you see the man standing just at the edge of the fire's glow? Did you notice his blank, emotionless stare as he watches everything he had left in this world drift away with the smoke? What does he have in his hand? Did you see the toys laying in the grass and the little bicycle with training wheels sitting in the driveway? Why isn't his family standing with him? Where are they? Did your crew just arrive on the most unimaginable crime scene you think of? Is this a Webster, New York-type of ambush (the subject of ambushes is an article all to itself)? Is he going to do whatever it takes to ensure you do not put out his fire? Could you see all of this in just a few seconds of surveying a scene? Absolutely! I call it "mission vision" and I define it as "the tunnel vision experienced while mitigating a high-risk or emergency situation." Do not allow mission vision prevent you from really seeing the scene!

Bottom Line

If someone cares about or loves you, then you owe it to them to come home. My training company's motto is "Prepare to be Your Only Option." It's up to you. Your awareness of your surroundings is yours and yours alone. Many violent encounters can be avoided or successfully defended against by simply practicing good situational awareness. It is difficult to avoid, defend against, or prevail in a violent encounter if your own pain is the first clue it is happening.

Jeremy Jones is a 22-year veteran of law enforcement and currently serves as a chief of police in Ohio. During his law enforcement career he also served 12-years as a Level II firefighter. He is also the owner and a lead instructor of his training company, Family Protection Group, LLC (www.familyprotectionllc.us), which specializes in armed and unarmed self-defense tactics.

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