Safe Response to Civil Unrest Incidents


As our society becomes more complex and gives rise to many intricate problems, first responders must gain knowledge and understanding to solve these issues. Fire and EMS responders will encounter many challenges during their careers, some of which may include civil disorders, riots, and protests. Acts of civil unrest take place annually across the United States; firefighters and paramedics have been injured during these situations. Increasingly, fire and EMS responders are finding themselves drawn into these types of events.

Also, the growing problem of antiglobalization/anarchist violence, usually in the form of mass protests and civil unrest, continues to develop across the globe. In the interest of public safety and current international trends, it is prudent to study these incidents and develop effective emergency response guidelines. Emergency responders at all levels must learn to work together to plan for civil unrest incidents occurring in their jurisdictions and to safely respond if an incident occurs.

Note: Numerous peaceful protests and demonstrations take place across the United States every day with no incidents of violence or destruction of property. This article focuses only on those small numbers of incidents where unrest takes place.


The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees people the right to peaceably assemble and to petition their government to address grievances. On rare occasions, that line is crossed, and that is when public safety becomes a concern. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) defines a civil disturbance as “an unlawful assembly that constitutes a breach of the peace or any assembly of persons where there is danger of collective violence, destruction of property or other unlawful acts.”

Civil unrest incidents can escalate for a variety of reasons and are not limited to urban areas. They can occur in several situations: peaceful demonstrations or war protests that turn confrontational, violence related to major sporting events, concerts and “block parties” that turn violent, political conventions that are disrupted because of activists, confrontations at “hot spots” such as abortion clinics and research laboratories, and riots related to racial tensions.

When numerous antiwar and mass marches took place across the United States in October and November of 2003, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) distributed the Intelligence Bulletin “Tactics Used During Protests and Demonstrations.” The bulletin addressed the growing use of training camps, surveillance, violence, vandalism, and other tactics by some groups.

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, states in Sections 6-7, Civil Unrest/Terrorism:

Fire departments shall develop and maintain written guidelines that establish a standardized approach to the safety of members at incidents that involve violence, unrest or civil disturbances. Such situations shall include but not be limited to riots, fights, violent crimes, drug-related situations, family disturbances, deranged individuals, and people with fire department operations.

Following are some examples of disturbances that have occurred in the recent past.

  • May 2007, Los Angeles, California. During a May Day pro-immigration rally, more than 30 protestors and 15 police officers were injured during a large disturbance.
  • March 2006, San Bernardino, California. Several fights broke out at a concert, which led to a crowd of more than 1,000 vandalizing cars. Several shops were broken into, and several more were damaged. There were several injuries and arrests.
  • December 2005, Toledo, Ohio. After an American Nazi Party march, several hundred protestors battled with police for several hours. Several law enforcement officers were injured, and several police and emergency vehicles were damaged.
  • November 2005, France. More than 1,400 vehicles were burned in more than 270 communities as civil unrest spread throughout the country. Firefighters and EMS crews reportedly were attacked with bats, axes, rocks, and bottles.
  • October 2005, Madison, Wisconsin. Police used repeated bursts of pepper spray to break up a crowd of Halloween celebrants during a weekend of revelry in which more than 400 people were arrested.
  • June 2003, Benton Harbor, Michigan. Rocks and bottles pelted firefighters as they responded to dozens of structure and vehicle arson fires during a riot. Three firefighters were injured, and two apparatus were damaged.
  • October 2002, Eugene, Oregon. Students fueled by alcohol left several parties and started a disturbance by setting several small fires, resulting in property damage and confrontations with police.
  • April 2001, Cincinnati, Ohio. Several fire stations and fire apparatus were damaged as escalating racial tensions led to several days of violence. The results were scores of injuries; numerous vehicle, trash, and structure arson fires; widespread damage; and 800 arrests for looting and rioting.
  • February 2001, Seattle, Washington. A riot broke out as groups of individuals assaulted people during Mardis Gras celebrations. One person was killed, and 72 people were treated at hospitals. Twenty-one were arrested.


Does your jurisdiction host large or controversial political conventions, conferences, or demonstrations? Past experience related to events such as the Free Trade Areas of the Americas, Republican National Convention, Democratic National Convention, G8 Summit, and World Trade Organization and World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings has shown the need for preplanning these events and for interagency communication.

When preplanning a large event, consider the actions that would have to be taken during a civil unrest event if the potential for one exists. If your jurisdiction includes or is near an educational institution, consider that civil unrest events have occurred at or near college campuses when sports teams won or lost critical games. For example, on September 25, 2005, in Knoxville, Tennessee, a crowd of 500 University of Tennessee students reportedly let a rowdy party celebrating a football team victory get out of hand. People were throwing debris out of windows and setting a small fire. Five people were arrested. Also, in April 2003 in Durham, New Hampshire, an estimated 4,000 people rioted downtown after the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team lost a championship game. More than 80 people were arrested, and beer bottles, full beer cans, and rocks were thrown at firefighters.

Be very cautious of any event or activity that arouses your curiosity. Follow your department’s guidelines and procedures (which should be established before an incident occurs) when responding to such events.


In today’s environment, a fire or EMS agency may also be requested to assist or “stand by” at a law enforcement response to a mass protest, civil unrest event, or other special operation. As the relationship between the fire service and local, state, and federal law enforcement is developed, intelligence on possible security threats or issues may be disseminated to fire and EMS agencies. Early notification of a possible disturbance will allow the fire and EMS command staffs to review plans and prepare field forces for potential events.

Unless otherwise specified, the initial response should be small; this would facilitate better command and control of resources. The supervising fire/EMS officer should report to the law enforcement incident commander for an exchange of details/information. If the event is planned or if violence is being forecast, fire/EMS agencies should consider forming task forces or strike teams. Training and planning for this type of event should be conducted with all key agencies prior to a response. Responders’ safety is paramount.


The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducts investigations of firefighter line-of-duty deaths to formulate recommendations for preventing future deaths and injuries. NIOSH makes the following recommendations for fire departments responding to scenes of violence, which I believe can be applied to civil unrest events:

  • Develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) for responding to potentially violent situations.
  • Develop integrated emergency communication systems that include the ability to directly relay real-time information among the caller, dispatch, and all responding emergency personnel.
  • Provide body armor or bullet-resistant personal protective equipment (PPE); train with it and consistently enforce its use when responding to potentially violent situations.
  • Ensure all emergency response personnel have the capability for continuous radio contact. Consider providing portable communication equipment that has integrated hands-free capabilities.
  • Consider requiring emergency dispatch centers to incorporate the ability to archive location or individual historical data and provide pertinent information to responding fire and emergency medical services personnel.
  • Develop coordinated response guidelines for violent situations. Hold joint training sessions with law enforcement, mutual-aid, and emergency response departments.


Fire-EMS agencies should meet with local law enforcement and others to develop agreements concerning police support during critical events prior to any incidents. Many localities require that a permit be issued for large gatherings or demonstrations. Fire and EMS should be notified when such a permit is issued. Planning should begin on notification of the issuance of a large gathering or demonstration permit. Conduct a threat assessment to determine the following: How many protesters are anticipated? Are counter-demonstrations possible? Do any of the groups involved in the demonstration or gathering have a history of violence? Does the local jurisdiction have the resources to deal with a potential disturbance and to maintain resources for routine levels of service?

Any civil unrest event has the potential to cause a large increase in fire and medical calls. Law enforcement, fire, and EMS agencies all share the same priorities during a critical incident. Planning and interagency cooperation for any event should be paramount. Also, consult with your Office of Emergency Management to see if its Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) contains a section on civil unrest event roles and responsibilities. A coordinated effort among all agencies is needed to ensure a safe and effective response.


The following lessons learned are based on experience with past civil unrest events in the United States and abroad:

  • Preplanning is critical.
  • Immediate interagency cooperation and a unified command structure are essential.
  • Clear communications are necessary for effective operations.
  • Access to helicopters for overhead assessments is a plus.
  • Move or empty trash dumpsters; they are easy targets of arson.
  • Extiguish fires immediately, if possible, because they draw large groups of individuals to one area.
  • Secure construction sites. They contain rocks, bricks, concrete, barrels, and other items demonstrators can use as weapons.
  • Protesters may fill barrels with water or cement and use them to block roads or roll them down hills toward responders.
  • Alcohol is a significant contributor to violence.
  • Protesters may use such tactics as protester training, safe houses, surveillance, video crews, and radio communications.
  • Squirt guns may be used to spray ammonia, gasoline, and other chemicals on responders.
  • Molotov cocktails are a serious danger; plan for them.
  • Protesters may throw rocks, bricks, bottles, cans, and fireworks at responders or use slingshots or “wrist rockets” to shoot BBs, marbles, lug nuts, and other similar items.
  • One tactic protestors use is to form a human chain by interlocking arms, legs, and bodies to quickly block streets and intersections.
  • Protesters may use “protester devices” or “locking devices” consisting of steel and plastic PVC pipes to lock arms. Also, buckets, bicycle locks, drums, and other devices are used to anchor individuals to each other or to fixed objects.
  • Protesters may place suspicious packages and call in bomb threats.
  • During civil unrest events, related and unrelated 911 call volume will increase.
  • Responders need to be prepared for decon; large numbers of people may be exposed to “pepper spray” and other irritants.
  • Fire and EMS personnel may become targets of violence.


Does your agency provide body armor for responders? Can you gain access to body armor in a crisis situation, such as a civil unrest event, in your community? This is a topic of increasing debate within the fire/EMS community. Body armor could become an essential piece of responders’ PPE during a civil unrest response. Old “hand-me-downs” from the military and law enforcement agencies may not always be the best choices; the armor may be severely damaged/worn out. Some jurisdictions provide no armor, some provide all staff armor, and others provide armor only to fire/EMS units that routinely respond to a large number of shootings and stabbings. On the other hand, the cost of body armor is very restrictive, typically starting around $800 and higher per unit. If your agency is looking into purchasing armor, do thorough research. Numerous types and levels of body armor are on the market. For additional information on body armor, see “Body Armor Safety Initiative,” U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), at


Note: Please follow local guidelines and procedures. The following information is provided for informational purposes only.

  • For large-scale or multiday civil unrest events, activate a secured multiagency coordination center (MACC).
  • Expect a large media response.
  • Establish task forces or strike teams when possible.
  • Arrange for extra staffing and the staging of equipment and personnel.
  • Implement mutual-aid agreements.

High-Profile Response

Fire personnel should wear full PPE at all times on-scene and when responding to and from events. EMS personnel should wear helmets and clearly marked EMS jackets. If there is any doubt about whether a responder is identified as a firefighter or an EMS responder, he should wear a road vest or T-shirt with highly visible lettering.

Low-Profile Response

Fire/EMS responders assisting in nontraditional operations or special operations (cutting protesters out of devices/locks, providing tactical medics, for example) should wear uniforms or coveralls with no name patches or badges.

Body armor should be provided for those responding into the “impact” area.

  • Remove equipment such as axes, hooks, and poles from the outside of apparatus, if necessary.
  • In extreme situations, placing duct tape in the windows of emergency response vehicles in the shape of an “X” may keep glass from shattering and striking responders.
  • Always operate with a team or a “battle buddy” as a minimum.
  • Never leave the pump panel operator alone.
  • Do not engage in aerial company operations, ladder structures, assign personnel to the roof, or engage in interior firefighting. You are there for life safety and rescue only.
  • Use short hoselays, rapid attacks, and quick “take-ups.”
  • Do not overhaul; employ “hit-and-run” firefighting tactics.
  • Use deck guns when possible.
  • Be prepared to leave vehicle and trash fires unattended if the situation warrants. It may be necessary to abandon a scene quickly.
  • Be prepared to decontaminate multiple individuals exposed to law enforcement chemical agents such as pepper spray.
  • EMS may need to implement disaster procedures such as triage tags, casualty collection points, and field treatment areas for minor injuries.
  • The use of tactical medics to support law enforcement operations is encouraged.
  • Always use law enforcement personnel as escorts.
  • Be very cautious of any event or activity that arouses your curiosity.


The safety of all responders is paramount during these types of events. Unfortunately, the likelihood that emergency responders will someday be called to respond to a civil unrest event is higher than ever before. The world has changed drastically and will continue to do so. Hopefully, you will use this information to assist with planning and training efforts. The more public safety agencies prepare for such incidents, the better they can respond to effectively manage any situation that may arise. The community has entrusted us with its safety, so let’s prepare now.


The following resources will be helpful when planning for potential civil unrest events.

Information and guidance on fire/EMS response to civil unrest events: When Violence Erupts: A Survival Guide for Emergency Responders, Dennis Krebs,

Planning guidance: “Report of the Joint Fire/Police Report on Civil Unrest,” Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), available at


For public safety agencies and special operations teams involved in planning and training for civil unrest and protest incidents, it is critical that Operations Security (OPSEC) be used in planning and training. Extremists and organized criminals can take weeks and months to select their targets and plan their operations. To be successful, they need specific information about our personnel, response plans, capabilities, and infrastructures. OPSEC is a five-step risk-management process used by military and security professionals to protect sensitive information that adversaries could use. Remember that there are hate groups and extremists in all 50 states and that some of these protest groups conduct extensive planning and training prior to a planned demonstration.

The “OPSEC for Public Safety” course is offered by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) for first responders and public safety agencies. The workshop provides practical examples of using OPSEC in the public safety world. Participants will also learn how terrorists and criminals collect intelligence and plan their operations, how to identify areas vulnerable to an attack, and countermeasures that can protect information that needs to be secure. Students who successfully complete the training will be able to apply OPSEC to emergency and special event planning; special operations such as SWAT, hazmat, weapons of mass destruction, bomb squad; intelligence, counterterrorism, arson, and narcotics task forces; and criminal investigations.

The course is presented at FLETC in Glynco, Georgia. To register, go to, click on “Training Programs,” then “Counter Terrorism Division,” and then “CTD Training.” Local and state agencies must register through FLETC state and local programs. From the FLETC Web site, click on “Training Programs,” then “State and Local Programs.” For additional information on OPSEC training and planning, go to


The U.S. Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) in Anniston, Alabama, offers three courses for public safety agencies relative to managing a civil unrest event.

  • “Managing Civil Actions in Threat Incidents (MCATI) Basic”—PER-200: Designed for law enforcement agencies, it covers such topics as crowd control, vehicle tactics, crowd behavior, use of shields, and PPE.
  • “Managing Civil Actions in Threat Incidents (MCATI) Protester Devices”—PER-202: For law enforcement, firefighters, and others who may be involved in this type of operation, it covers such topics as protester locking devices, extrication teams, use of tools, and safety.
  • “Managing Civil Actions in Threat Incidents (MCATI) Command”—MGT-300: Designed for management-level responders, it covers such topics as civil disorder overview, preplanning, incident action plans for a civil unrest event, legal considerations, and lessons learned.


I attended the Command and Protester Devices courses; both are well worth the time. I would suggest rounding up a joint or multiagency agency group to attend these classes. For additional information on these courses, go to

AUGUST VERNON is an assistant coordinator for the Forsyth County (NC) Office of Emergency Management. He returned to this position in 2005, after serving a year in Iraq as a security contractor conducting long-range convoy security operations involving several combat engagements that encountered improvised explosive devices (IEDs). He has been a member of emergency management since 2000 and of the fire service since 1990. Vernon served in the U.S. Army as a nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) operations specialist. He teaches courses in IED response, incident management, OPSEC for public safety, hazmat operations, and terrorism/WMD response. He has been published in several national publications.

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