By Thomas N. Warren
In light of recent violent incidents that required the response of fire and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel, fire chiefs and policy makers should revisit their operational policies regarding their response procedures to violent incidents. The most recent notable violent incident occurred following the Louis County, Missouri, grand jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the November 24, 2014, shooting death of Michael Brown. This decision triggered almost three weeks of violent protests and building fires in Ferguson, Missouri. Across the country, similar protests occurred, some of which were violent, although many others were peaceful. The one thing these protests had in common was that they posed a high level of risk to firefighters and EMS personnel alike.
Responding to incidents under these circumstances changes how we operate; our goals and objectives will shift to a self-protection and incident stabilization strategy. We will not be able to operate in the detailed and deliberate manner that we normally do. We will have to take a series of precautions to protect ourselves and still serve a deserving public. All fire departments should develop a standard operating procedure (SOP) for responding to these types of incidents and coordinate the SOP development with their local law enforcement and emergency management agencies.
To examine our operations more closely, we need to look at the nature and severity of these responses. There are basically two levels of these dangerous responses. The first is not all that uncommon in today’s fire service: responding to violent incidents. The second is less common: responding to large-scale civil disturbances. Although there are similar aspects to these two dangerous responses, we should examine them separately and tailor our actions to the conditions we find.
Responding to Violent Incidents
In today’s fire service, especially for those departments that respond to and are trained at an advanced life support level, violent activity responses are becoming more common. Firefighters have become more than the people called on to put out fires; they provide a much more extensive level of service that, in many cases, includes violence in the community. These violent activities to which firefighters respond can include shootings, stabbings, domestic disputes, gang activities, or assaults. In far too many cases when these calls for assistance are received, the police may or may not be on the scene and may be unaware of the nature of the call to which firefighters/EMS are responding. It is clear that these incidents are, for the most part, a law enforcement incident. However, equally important is the need for immediate emergency medical aid. The responding companies need to take steps to ensure their safety while at the same time providing the emergency medical aid that is required.
Their first step is to determine if the scene is secure. A secure area is an area that has been determined by on-scene police officers to be safe for our operations. The mere presence of police on scene does not mean a scene is secure. It is vital for the first-dispatched company to confirm with their dispatch office that the police have confirmed that the scene is secure. During their response, fire/EMS personnel should confirm with their dispatcher that the police are also responding. When the police have declared that the scene is secure, the fire/EMS companies can respond directly to the location to which they were dispatched. Once on scene, the fire/EMS officer in charge should seek out a face-to-face report from the police officer in charge of the scene. If possible, firefighters should have access to the police radio frequencies to enable them to monitor the communications of the on-scene police officers.
When the dispatch office cannot confirm that the scene is secure, the first-in fire officer must stage and await confirmation that the scene is secure. The first-in fire/EMS company should stage at a safe location that is not visible from the dispatched location and turn off all emergency warning lights. For example, if fire/EMS respond to a shooting, and the fire/EMS personnel are visible and viewed as not responding to render aid, this will create an unsafe condition and will most likely escalate the violence toward the fire/EMS personnel. The first-in fire officer should choose a safe location for staging and notify the dispatch office where the staging area is located to enable other responding companies to meet at the same staging area, which could be the fire station itself.
Once the on-scene police officers have determined that the scene is secure, they will notify the fire department dispatch office, and the fire/EMS companies can respond to the dispatched location. Even if fire/EMS personnel are monitoring the police radio frequency, they should never self-dispatch to the incident scene and always keep their dispatch office advised of their actions. This operation will require training and coordination from fire/EMS personnel and police officers to ensure each agency knows what to expect from the other. Developing this teamwork approach will not be difficult; fire/EMS and police routinely work as teams at other incidents in the community such as auto accidents. Once on scene, firefighters must understand that violent incidents are primarily a crime scene, and they need to respect the work that the police must accomplish.
Another variation of responding to a violent incident is when a fire/EMS company responds to a request for emergency medical aid and on arrival finds that the call was because of some level of violence. Again, the first step is to determine if the scene is secure. When the scene is not secure for any reason, fire/EMS personnel should leave the area immediately and notify the fire dispatch office that the scene is not secure and they are withdrawing to a safe location and where that location is. The police should be notified promptly and fire/EMS personnel should wait for the police to secure the scene before returning. When fire/EMS personnel respond to a scene that is secure, and evidence indicates that the response was a result of some violent or illegal activity, fire/EMS personnel should begin their operations and notify the police immediately to respond. Fire/EMS personnel should always request police assistance if they feel that the response could turn into a violent response or that they may become the target of violence.
Fire/EMS personnel should always maintain a high level of situational awareness; a secure scene can turn into a violent scene very quickly, exposing fire/EMS personnel to extreme danger. Be alert to your surroundings and the people around you. Fire/EMS personnel should call for assistance (police and fire) the moment they feel uncomfortable with their situation. The officer in charge of the fire/EMS unit should always be thinking of a second means of egress in these situations. Fire and EMS personnel should also be mindful that the patient may be armed and could become agitated. Additional fire companies can provide support and, in most cases, can be on scene quicker than police units.
Large-Scale Civil Disturbances
Large-scale civil disturbances are of the scope that was witnessed in Ferguson, Missouri. These types of incidents do not occur often, but when they do, they can last for several hours to several days to several weeks, and they can occur in many places simultaneously.
Large-scale civil disturbances can develop in one of two ways. The first type is one that occurs suddenly and without warning such as spontaneous gang violence or unrest following a sporting event. The second type of large-scale civil disturbance is one that can be anticipated such as the grand jury decision in Ferguson. The key for a successful and safe operation is planning and coordination between all public safety agencies in both types of incidents.
Fire/EMS personnel can often be the targets of the violence, placing fire/EMS personnel in grave danger. Fire/EMS personnel can expect to be the targets of stones, bricks, bottles, and even Molotov cocktails. Fires and violent activities can go unchecked, stressing law enforcement agencies to their limits, particularly if it is a spontaneous event. This is a very dangerous atmosphere for fire/EMS personnel to operate, which is why we often see video coverage depicting a building burning with no firefighters to be seen. Early in these large-scale civil disturbances, fire companies will be operating in their normal operational mode.
As the violence and fires escalate, the fire department will soon be overwhelmed, resulting in scaled back operations for the safety of the firefighters. Normal fire department operations will transition into a full scale incident command system structure and move to a unified command with the police and other agencies. Initially, police assistance to the fire department will disappear as the police deal with the violence on the streets. Once a unified command structure is established, fire/EMS responses can be better coordinated to ensure fire/EMS safety. The fire department will have to reorganize itself to meet the needs of the community while protecting its members. In the case of spontaneous unrest, fire chiefs will have to act quickly to recognize the changing environment and develop a plan to continue emergency services while protecting their members and equipment. In the case of anticipated unrest, preplanning and coordination between agencies will have already taken place, allowing all agencies to execute their plan.
One of the most common ways to achieve safety and operational effectiveness is to organize fire companies into task forces. Task forces commonly consist of two engine companies, one ladder company, one EMS unit, one chief officer, and a police unit. Staffing the task force with additional personnel will allow for all basic extinguishment operation needs to be met and eliminate the need for additional resources. These task forces are better able to respond to a building fire and contain it before it spreads to other structures. The task force will respond as one unit and remain as one unit before, during, and after an emergency response.
The police unit will be responsible for the safety of the task force and must be staffed with at least two officers or other law enforcement agencies. Before responding, the police unit will confirm that the area is safe. The objective of the task force is to respond quickly, contain the fire, extinguish it without overhaul, and then to leave the area as quickly as possible. Companies in the task force should remove all tools and equipment that is secured to the outside of the apparatus and store that equipment in compartments. All firefighters should ride inside the apparatus with the windows closed. Firefighters should never be left alone and only operate in groups for their safety. This higher level of response will be used for the critical area where the civil disturbance is active. Normal response procedures can still be in place for areas of the community where there is no presence of violence. Fire and EMS resources will be stretched as the needs of the civil disturbance and the remaining areas of the community are met. The fire department should use its own personnel and equipment for all task force assignments and responses into a critical area. Mutual-aid companies should be assigned to fill in for fire/EMS companies in secured and violence-free areas of the community.
Large-scale civil disturbances will place great demands on the EMS personnel. EMS personnel can expect to see multiple patients suffering from abrasions, sprains, lacerations, tear gas exposure, cardiac events, and breathing disorders. As with firefighting operations, EMS personnel should move in and out quickly. In most cases, extensive patient assessment will not be possible in most cases. Advanced medical care should be performed in a triage area or field hospital area where safety can be assured. Use caution when establishing field hospitals because of the mobile nature of civil disturbances. A field hospital can initially be set up in what is first thought of as a safe area and soon be surrounded by an angry mob.
EMS personnel should also not operate in any critical area without police protection. A medical strike team can be established consisting of an EMS unit and two police vehicles. If responding personnel can plan for the civil disturbance, the activation of SWAT type tactical medics can be employed. EMS personnel should always be clearly identifiable; EMS personnel should wear helmets and body armor as the situation dictates. Like their firefighting counterparts, EMS personnel should remove any scissors or other sharp instruments from their pockets and medical bags. These tools and instruments can be used as weapons against the EMS personnel by angry protesters. EMS personnel can draw on their mass casualty training if the number of patients seeking medical aid becomes overwhelming.
At the street level, police and fire department personnel work well together but both agencies need to know how to operate within a unified command structure with which both agencies are comfortable. To achieve this level of comfort, regular training sessions are required involving all levels of each organization as well as jointly developing a SOP. The training program must include all aspects of responding to violent incidents, from minor altercations to a full-scale civil disturbance.
National Fire Protection Association 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, Section 8.10, places the responsibility for firefighter safety squarely on the shoulders of fire department administrators. NFPA 1500 states, “Fire Department 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.” The standard also states, “Fire Departments shall also be responsible for developing an interagency agreement with its law enforcement agency counterpart to provide protection for fire department members at situations that involve violence.”
Although planning for large-scale civil disturbances is primarily a responsibility of law enforcement, it is vital for fire departments to advocate for our people and provide the leadership required to work with all agencies in our jurisdictions. As fire service leaders, it is our responsibility to develop a program that protects our people and is able to meet the fire and emergency medical needs of our community in times of crisis.
- Providence (RI) Fire Department (PFD) SOP #14, Major Civil Disturbances.
- PFD SOP #18, Response to Violent Incidents.
- Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department SOP 206.01, Operations at Violent Incidents.
- NFPA 1500, Section 8.10, Scenes of Violence, Civil Unrest or Terrorism. (2007).
- National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Firefighter Life Safety Initiative 12 Report, January 2013.
Thomas N. Warren has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. Presently he is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in fire science from Providence College, an Associate’s Degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.
More Thomas N. Warren