ANSWERING TO CRIMINAL CHARGES

BY WILLIAM SHOULDIS

Traditionally, the fire service has dealt well with the operational and administrative aspects of its mission. However, today’s firefighters and paramedics are encountering new problems during an emergency response that involve hazards well beyond the special operational demands of dangerous properties (vacant building to lightweight construction) and the threat of deadly disease (carcinogens to HIV and hepatitis C). Responders are becoming much more than the “last line of defense”; they increasingly are the “first contact” with social problems such as domestic violence, fraud, and crimes committed to cover drug addiction. Now is the time for labor and management to join forces to prepare for these dangerous confrontations. Contemporary training programs should develop human skills such as communications, sensitivity, cultural diversity, conflict resolution, and decision making and should reinforce technical skills such as CPR, wearing and working in encapsulating protective clothing, and driving large apparatus. All of these skills are needed because the public requires a professional performance regardless of the nature of the 9-1-1 call.

TRAINING INITIATIVES

Two organizations that have devoted significant training dollars to preparing newly promoted company officers are the Philadelphia and Los Angeles County Fire Departments.

Recently, the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department expanded its Officer’s Development Program for new captains. An innovative, one-week, 40-hour course covers topics such as situational leadership, firefighting simulations, reconstruction of vehicular accidents, and creating an effective prevention program.

In Los Angeles County (CA), the Company Officer’s Handbook was updated and circulated to every captain. This document pertains to fireground and fire station challenges. Both agencies have adopted “zero tolerance” for trimming training budgets. I only wish these practical programs were available when I assumed command of an escalating incident on South Broad Street in Philadelphia.

THE SOUTH BROAD STREET INCIDENT

The night tour began with a rather routine alarm. By the end of the evening, firefighters had fought a stubborn structure fire, faced accusations of robbery, and became involved in a full-scale police investigation. It started with a telephone call to the Fire Dispatch Center, reporting a house fire. When the first unit arrived on-scene, nothing was showing from side A. Firefighters observed no signs of fire or smoke in a three-story row home. Then a neighbor directed a crew up a narrow alley to the rear yard. Flames were venting from the second floor and lapping into the third floor. The incident commander requested additional companies, bringing the structure fire to a full one-alarm complement of 35 personnel. Units were ordered to stretch handlines, begin vertical ventilation, and protect the adjoining exposures. Once sufficient staffing arrived on the scene, the mode of operation became offensive.

Members of the first engine company stretched a preconnected 13/4-inch hoseline to the front door of the structure, forced entry, and began to ascend the wooden stairs. Wearing full protective gear, they braced for an interior assault. In the rear, the second engine company operated a mobile handline with a smooth-bore tip in the narrow alley. Its assignment was to wet down the combustible wooden cornice and asphalt shingled bays to control the extension of fire on the exterior of the buildings. From their position, they could reduce the radiant heat and stop fire spread but could not completely extinguish the fire. The third engine company was ordered to stretch sufficient hose into exposure D to stop extension. The last engine company was split into two crews. Some members were assigned to the rapid intervention team; others moved a backup line to the first floor of the fire building.

Meanwhile, the ladder companies were busy. The first truck raised its aerial to the third-floor windows. Slowly, the tips tapped the heated panes, and the windows unceremoniously failed. Smoke instantly billowed out of the opening in a spiral column. With all the windows removed, the operator working at the turntable raised the main ladder to the roof. An experienced truckman, this firefighter knew that access to the roof for venting was going to be extremely important. Other members attempted to enter from the exterior, raising ladders to the fire floor and above. The inside search crew accompanied the fire attack team. The second ladder company separated into pairs with an emphasis on evacuation of exposures B and D.

As the incident commander, I marveled at the execution. It was flawless. It seemed to be moving in textbook style-the way operations are designed in our “back to basics” training program. Being the chief in charge when everything is flowing smoothly is effortless.

NO GUIDELINE FOR CRIMINAL ACCUSATION

Unfortunately, my concentration was interrupted by a screaming, angry citizen, whose apartment was our exposure D. He was accusing the firefighters of stealing money, lodging a criminal complaint, in front of a dozen onlookers and a television film crew. He was in effect labeling this group of hard-working firefighters as common thieves.

Before the final flames were extinguished, the last embers cooled, and the debris was physically removed, our smooth operation became an emotional event. The department had no guideline to cover these circumstances. My experience did not cover criminal incidents. I never dreamed that stabilizing an incident could mean accounting for lost valuables or missing money.

The firefighters who had worked in the Exposure Sector were ordered to stand by on the exterior. Most were annoyed. Some wondered if they should cooperate. Others thought of seeking legal representation. One wanted to summon a union leader. As the chief, and possibly one of the accused, I thought about the attack on our character and reputation. What were our legal rights? Can a property owner demand quick action? I wanted a timely but fair inquiry and would not allow any “frontier justice”-no body searches, emptying of pockets, or other intimidation. I requested a full police investigation, which reduced the firefighters’ anxiety but made them unavailable for responding to emergencies in the community.

From my view in front of the structure at the stationary command post, two completely different investigations were simultaneously taking place. In the burned-out dwelling, the fire marshal was removing layers of debris to find the origin and cause of the fire. In exposure D, the police were searching for clues to the missing money. Police dusted the window ledges in the front room for fingerprints and questioned the property owner. After about one hour, a detective discovered the money in a second-floor closet. The money was neatly wedged next to a vacuum cleaner. This closet was approximately 50 feet from the front window ledge. The fact that all $1,100 was together eliminated the possibility that the wind blew the bills when the firefighters opened the lower sash. Later, police found that two teenagers had been seen exiting exposure D as the firefighters were arriving. One was the son of the complainant. The property owner quickly and quietly withdrew all charges.

CHECKLIST FOR CONFRONTING ON-SCENE CRIMINAL CHARGES

After discussing the incident with friends and an attorney, I was open to new ideas. I had many questions but few answers. There were just too many laws and court rulings to remember. Therefore, I made a short checklist of concrete actions I could take when confronted with a similar situation on a fire call, medical assignment, or prevention activity.

  • The incident commander must take charge of the situation. Emotionally involved crews will become confrontational. Cooperation hinges on people’s being objective. Gather information from the command post, and establish an intergency plan that includes several departments.
  • Immediately remove involved emergency responders from the interior, and assign them meaningful tasks on the perimeter. Keeping these members productive but insulated from additional charges such as tampering with the scene will reduce morale and legal problems. Summon additional assistance to control entrance and exit points.
  • Investigate and document all charges through law enforcement authorities. Police are trained to solve crimes, just as firefighters are trained to investigate fires, intervene at medical emergencies, mitigate hazardous materials spills, and perform technical rescues. Police will serve as a neutral third party, and the public would be less likely to call the outcome of the investigation a “smoke screen.” As firefighters, we are obligated to answer all questions asked by our supervisors. Slanting the facts or not being truthful helps the guilty party escape detection.
  • Put an experienced public information officer in charge of the matter. The media influence the fire department’s image. Journalists can enhance or destroy years of exemplary service in searching for a sensational story. It is imperative that a knowledgeable, experienced public information officer be involved. Without an official statement, the public may hear only biased voices based on perceptions and rumors. Departments should build a year-round relationship with the media to reduce the chances of unjust coverage. Many fire chiefs grant interviews on the fireground, quickly handle legitimate requests for statistics, and even invite the press to participate in training sessions. In Philadelphia, a highly identifiable television reporter is the spokesperson for the “change your clock/ change your battery” campaign. Another reporter serves as a reular speaker at fire prevention luncheons.

  • Instruct first responders in their constitutional rights. During this type of incident, cooperation among law enforcement officers, media representatives, and fire officials is essential. Nonetheless, if at any time during the investigation there is an indication that a firefighter or paramedic is a criminal suspect, the police must give that member the Miranda warning. At that point, the accused member should stop speaking and instantaneously request legal counsel.

There can be a fine distinction between an investigation and a search. Often it depends on the presence of a law enforcement agent. If the police are at the scene, they need a search warrant to examine apparatus, bunker gear, and clothing. When police are not at the scene, the incident commander, as an employer, has the right and duty to conduct a full investigation. Opinions vary, however, about whether an incident commander can order firefighters/ paramedics to empty their pockets to rapidly resolve a dispute.

The laws of our land are open to many interpretations. The prudent incident commander should take every precaution to protect members while striving to be fair to the complainant. Thus, summoning the police and having a legal advisor on retainer should be basic steps in such situations.

  • Develop a supervisory procedure. Doing what is ethically and legally right is not always easy. It takes courage. By taking the proper steps and having a systematic approach, you will increase the odds that your split-second decisions will not destroy the long-term support of the community or esprit de corps in your organization. Developing a supervisory procedure for dealing with negative issues such as a loss of valuables and missing money is a vital part of professionalism.

Most fire departments will need an infusion of revenue to implement programs that will raise members’ level of technical and human relations expertise. Training officers cost money. Course development and delivery can be very time-consuming and an energy drain. Fortunately, the fire-rescue service has viable options. There are numerous opportunities to improve competencies at low cost. Nationally, operational and management courses are given at the Federal Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Locally, regional sites offer a full menu of programs for career, combination, and volunteer departments. Yearly, there are educational conferences such as the FDIC.

Although our world is complex and full of technical uncertainties and human risks, if we plan effectively, we can develop policies that will provide us with comprehensive, concise, and uncomplicated guidelines for dealing with them.

WILLIAM SHOULDIS is a 28-plus-year veteran of the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department, where he serves as deputy chief. He is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where he teaches courses in fireground operations, health and safety, and fire prevention. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science administration and a master’s degree in public safety. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

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