Cincinnati Fire Division Responds to Civil Disturbance

Rubbish fires and vandalism responses overloaded the emergency system. We allowed any fire that did not pose an exposure threat to a structure to self-extinguish.

By Thomas C. Lakamp

The events that occurred in a dark alley in the early morning hours of Saturday, April 7, 2001, set in motion three days of civil unrest the likes of which the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, has not seen since the 1960s. A Cincinnati police officer engaged in a foot pursuit to apprehend a suspect wanted on outstanding warrants. A confrontation ensued in the alley, and the officer fatally wounded the unarmed African-American male.

On Monday, April 9, the Cincinnati City Council Law and Public Safety Committee began its regularly scheduled meeting at 1500 hours. The meeting was held in City Council Chambers, and hundreds of angry minority residents attended, calling for action against the Police Division. The meeting continued late into the evening and as tempers flared, the crowd moved outside to the Police Division headquarters and surrounded the building, breaking numerous windows. Police, in full riot gear, dispersed the crowd.

On Tuesday, April 10, at 1500 hours, a large crowd of rioters gathered along Fifth Street in the center of Cincinnati’s downtown business district. The mob began a destructive northeast path through the city toward the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Along the way, the group targeted and violently attacked white motorists and pedestrians-pulling motorists from their vehicles and beating them, overturning vending carts of street merchants, and shattering windows of area businesses. The city declared a Phase One (Limited Area) Civil Disorder.

FIRE DEPARTMENT ESTABLISHES COMMAND

The Cincinnati Fire Division enacted the Civil Disorder Operations Plan at 1700 hours by opening the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and establishing Liberty Command. An assistant fire chief or district chief and representatives of all the other vital city services staffed the EOC around the clock. Liberty Command was comprised of a task force of all District One (downtown) companies and was located at Engine Company 29’s quarters in the West End area of the city. Engine 29’s quarters were completely surrounded with an eight-foot-high brick wall with a large concrete parking area that provided an excellent staging area for resources. Three fire stations had now been abandoned and an additional four companies had been assigned to Liberty Command from other districts. Total resources assigned to Liberty Command consisted of five engine companies, four truck companies, one heavy rescue, one paramedic unit, one BLS ambulance unit, one district chief as overall Liberty Command, and one district chief for suppression responses. A hot zone that encompassed the West End, Pendleton, and Over-the-Rhine neighborhoods was established. All responses to the hot zone were made by companies from Liberty Command and escorted by police.

The violence and vandalism increased throughout the evening, and police began to use beanbag shotguns to subdue the rioters, which resulted in numerous medical responses. We requested body armor for responses into the area; however, only six sets were immediately available. In the 12-hour period from 1900-0700 hours, we extinguished eight building fires in the hot zone including a fire at the historic Findlay Market.

While securing a water supply, one firefighter was confronted by a rioter with a gun. That incident forced us to immediately rethink our procedures for water supply.

The daylight hours of Wednesday, April 11, were fairly quiet; however, all task force companies remained at Liberty Command. At nightfall, riotous behavior resumed and spread to areas outside the initial hot zone.

A Phase 2 Civil Disorder (Widespread) was declared. The neighborhoods of Avondale, Walnut Hills, and Evanston had now erupted in violence. At 2200 hours, Avondale Command was established at Engine 32’s quarters. Avondale Command consisted of four engine companies, three truck companies, one paramedic rescue unit, one BLS ambulance, a district chief for suppression response, and a district chief as overall Avondale Command.

The violence was then directed at the Cincinnati Fire Division: A rioter threw a brick through the rear officer’s side passenger window of Engine 32, and another rioter threw a brick through the officer’s windshield on Truck 32. Fortunately, No personnel were injured. During the evening in Over-the-Rhine, a gunman ran around the back of Engine 29’s apparatus and shot a Cincinnati police officer at close range. Miraculously, the bullet hit the officer’s belt buckle and deflected into his body armor. The tension in the fire station was higher than ever before.

CALLS OVERLOAD SYSTEM

Rubbish fires and vandalism responses overloaded the emergency system. We allowed any fire that did not pose an exposure threat to a structure to self-extinguish. A building fire was reported in the vacant Warwick apartment building. (The Warwick is a large apartment building that was the scene of a four-alarm fire earlier in the year and has since been scheduled for demolition.) Our initial thoughts were to allow the structure to burn to minimize firefighter exposure, but we decided to fight the fire because letting the building burn might incite further violence. We were able to control the fire from the exterior using master stream devices. When companies returned to their fire stations from the task force command posts, they found many stations had been vandalized; rocks had been thrown through apparatus door windows.

STATE OF EMERGENCY: CURFEW ENACTED

Cincinnati Mayor Charles Luken declared a State of Emergency on Thursday, April 12, 2001, and enacted a curfew between 2000 and 0600 hours for all citizens. Both Liberty and Avondale Commands remained in service for the remainder of the week; however, responses were greatly reduced by the citywide curfew.

The male that was shot by the Cincinnati police officer, triggering the riots, was buried on Saturday, April 14. Numerous protests and limited acts of vandalism resulted, but there were no serious outbreaks of violence. The mayor adjusted the curfew to 2300-0600 hours in honor of Easter on Sunday, April 15, and lifted the curfew altogether on Monday, April 16. All responses at this time returned to regular response, and Avondale and Liberty Commands were terminated.

Lessons Learned AND REINFORCED


  • Throughout the civil disturbance, the Cincinnati Fire Division adapted our Civil Disorder Operations Plan to meet our current needs and concerns for firefighter safety. From the outset, all responses were made with police escort. A fire company could not leave a command post without the police in tow. Often there simply were not enough police escorts for the number of calls, and responses had to be prioritized or “stacked”-we responded only when police escort became available. Stacking the responses was contrary to everything we do in the fire service; however, it was imperative to place firefighter safety above the desire to respond immediately. Sitting on critical responses demanded a strong incident commander and disciplined fire officers.
  • The early formation of task forces worked very well. Task forces in the Cincinnati Fire Division are made up of two engine companies, two truck companies, and a district chief. During the disturbance, two district chiefs were assigned to each task force response. The entire task force and police made all fire responses regardless of the nature of the fire.
  • Radio communication was a problem early in the disturbance. Company officers had to exercise discipline when using their radios. All communications, except for emergency transmissions, were routed through the task force commander. The EOC must update the field commands regularly with regard to the level and nature of police activity and potentially hazardous areas. At times, our units were unaware that they were responding into areas where police had reports of shots being fired.
  • During periods of civil unrest, you must employ a “hit and run” fire attack strategy (a quick knockdown of the fire with minimal overhaul). The firefighters should be away from the secure command post for the least amount of time possible and should never be staged away from the command post. All response vehicles were directed not to stop for any reason while responding to an emergency or returning to the command post. A stopped apparatus made an easy target. All fires not impinging a structure were permitted to self-extinguish, especially dumpsters and rubbish fires. Allowing the fire to consume the combustibles reduced the need for a return run when the remainder of the dumpster was ignited.
  • If a water supply was required, both engines would stop at the hydrant. The second engine crew would lay off for the first engine, using the large-diameter hose from the first engine. The second engine and crew would remain at the hydrant until the water was started. The second engine then proceeded to the scene but remained uncommitted. All equipment and hose were removed from the first engine to minimize the number of apparatus committed should it be necessary to abandon the scene. All apparatus were parked in a manner to effect a rapid retreat from the area including backing down no-outlet streets so the apparatus was facing the direction of egress.
  • Medical responses posed a large problem. The Cincinnati Fire Division uses a tiered response with engine companies and ALS or BLS transport units. During this period of civil disorder, the tiered response was eliminated, and all transport units were converted to ALS units staffed by a fire officer and three firefighters (two of the four were paramedics). A transport unit handled medical responses with a police escort. Members were instructed not to exit the vehicle until it was facing the direction of egress. The police escort remained with the ambulance throughout the transport and return to command.

  • Body armor must be available for all members at a moment’s notice. On the first night of the disturbance, only six sets of body armor were available to suppression personnel. Since the disturbance, body armor has been issued to companies responding in the inner-city neighborhoods.
  • Avoid any uniform that resembles the uniform of the police. All of our staff officers were ordered out of the customary white shirts and into blue fatigue uniforms.
  • Mutual-aid companies should be notified early in the disturbance and their possible roles and responsibilities explained in detail. No mutual-aid companies were required for the disturbance in Cincinnati.

The city of Cincinnati is still trying to heal the wounds caused by the April 2001 riots. To date, more than 100 shootings have occurred since April, a drastic increase over the same time frame of previous years. The Cincinnati Fire Division, because of training, dedication, and perseverance, provided to its citizens uninterrupted fire and medical service under extremely dangerous and trying conditions.


THOMAS C. LAKAMP is a district chief and 13-year veteran of the Cincinnati (OH) Fire Division, currently assigned to the Training Bureau. He served as the initial commander for Liberty Command on the first night of the riots and as the initial commander for Avondale Command on nights two through four.

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