Firefighter Involvement in Law Enforcement Activities

Some of us are old enough to remember the years of civil unrest in the 1960s and 1970s. We can picture in our minds fire streams directed at civilians. I can say that for as many times as I have seen this, I have never noticed who was “on the nozzle.” Perhaps that was orchestrated to keep “us”-the firefighters-from being perceived as “the bad guys.” More likely, it was that we weren’t the focus of the story-the crowds being dispersed were.

We must be truly blessed in the Great Lakes area. I hear other chiefs talk of drug labs in their area-of raids, fires, and explosions and of chiefs being asked (or told) to allow law enforcement officials to pose as firefighters on inspections or on EMS runs in suspected labs. There are many instances of fire departments being asked to assist law enforcement agencies in their duties. I have not heard of any such requests of the Toledo Department of Fire and Rescue since I have been here.

We had a nationally known “hate group” rally a few years back. I was involved in some of the planning, and we decided no fire apparatus or tools would be used for any reason to control crowds. In fact, I don’t recall any discussion concerning the use of the department except for caring for wounded or ill people.

Trust is a fragile commodity. Up until very recently in Toledo, quarterly civilian polls were conducted. One question had to do with “trust,” and the fire department came out on top of the list as the most trusted department. Taking actions such as described in this column can erode the public’s trust in us. More problematic is the danger that helping law enforcement can put firefighters in, not to mention the impression it will make on the children. The sight of firefighters hosing down crowds of civilians for any reason is something that children should never experience. Our job is to help them, carry them out of burning buildings, and bandage their wounds. To allow us to be viewed in any other light is inexcusable.

John (Skip) Coleman, deputy chief of training and EMS, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue; author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2001); editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering; and member of the FDIC Educational Committee.

Question: The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) recently issued a statement voicing its objections to the “use of firefighter or other rescue personnel, their uniforms or likeness thereof, or fire apparatus to gain an advantage in criminal action by law enforcement representatives.” The IAFC executive director noted that such activities “violate our public trust” and create hazards for our personnel by “compromising our ability to operate in hostile situations.” There have been instances in which firefighters have been requested by local government officials to hose down crowds of unruly people or when law enforcement officers have proposed dressing as firefighters while carrying out police-related duties. Has your department ever received such a request?

Larry Anderson, assistant chief, Dallas (TX) Fire-Rescue
Response: We have maintained a policy of not getting involved in criminal activity abatement for the 30+ years I have been here. I recall one particular instance back in the 1970s when we were requested to clear the sidewalks of some unruly partygoers by turning fire streams on them. We refused.

I believe it is essential to keep fire-rescue work separate from law enforcement efforts. We would not entertain the notion of using our vehicles, uniforms, or personnel to gain an advantage on persons engaged in criminal activity. We must be able to operate effectively in hostile situations to fulfill our commitment to the community we serve. Being associated with law enforcement efforts could compromise the trust that is necessary to afford a margin of safety to our personnel.

That being said, I believe we are entering an unprecedented period that could require actions we have not previously considered. We are at war. Wartime creates situations that must be dealt with in the most expedient manner. If it became necessary to use fire apparatus to gain access to hostages or place military forces in advantageous positions, I would not hesitate to do it. The fire service has suffered tremendously at the hands of our enemy, and we must be prepared to do whatever is necessary to defeat that enemy. Participation in military operations is much different from participating in standard law enforcement efforts. Once we have eradicated the threat of organized terrorism, we can return to being the “good guys” that render aid wherever and whenever it is needed.

Bob Oliphant, lieutenant, Kalamazoo (MI) Department of Public Safety
Response: As a fully consolidated public safety department, we regularly deal with unruly crowds and an occasional riot. Even though fire apparatus is at our disposal, we have never used it to disperse a crowd by hosing down people. We have never intentionally deceived the public by dressing as firefighters to carry out duties that were strictly police-related. Fire apparatus have been used to illuminate crime scenes and conduct rooftop searches. In doing so, I do not believe personnel safety or the public trust was jeopardized. If anything, I think the public was better served by our attempts to resolve serious situations with the resources available, which happened to be fire apparatus.

While the IAFC may want to publicly distance itself from law enforcement, I don’t see how it can avoid the reality that many incidents are handled jointly by fire and police personnel. Personal injury accidents, crimes with injuries, and even fires frequently require the presence of both. I started my career as a police officer prior to becoming a public safety officer. Information given to me by firefighters and paramedics frequently influenced my approach to an investigation. Firefighters and paramedics have alerted me to suspicious injuries involving children, intoxicated drivers involved in accidents, and suspects at crime scenes. The people who gave me this information seemed more interested in the “public good” than violating a “public trust” that might create a hostile environment. A better approach by the IAFC might be a resolution on how fire organizations and police agencies can better work together.

Leigh Hollins, battalion chief, Cedar Hammock Fire Rescue, Manatee County, Florida
Response: Cedar Hammock Fire Rescue has never received any requests to get directly involved with unruly crowds or imminently dangerous situations, although these situations do occur in our area infrequently. We have a close working relationship with our local law enforcement agencies, which include the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Highway Patrol. I believe they realize that we would not be involved in such activity as hosing down crowds, using apparatus in law enforcement activities, or allowing them to wear our uniform or gear to gain an advantage over a suspect.

We have allowed the local prostitution task force to use the apparatus bays of one of our stations as a “field booking unit” to help rid our Station 2 zone of a prostitution problem. Though we allowed it in the past, we recently decided it is not in our best interest and will probably discontinue the practice in the future.

We have assisted law enforcement in other nondirect ways on occasion, such as lending our thermal imaging cameras to locate indoor marijuana growers (the Supreme Court is now reviewing the legality of using the cameras) and providing ladders to access roofs to find evidence or suspects.

Our situation is different from that of a municipal fire department in that we are a “special taxing district” and we are not “just another department” within a city. We have no official political ties with any law enforcement agency, allowing us to make our own decisions-in our best interest, of course.

Frank C. Schaper, chief, St. Charles (MO) Fire Department
Response: I agree with the IAFC’s position. True, we work closely with law enforcement. We have firefighter/paramedics on the police tactical team. But I believe that is about as close as I want to get. We must maintain a distance between law enforcement activities and fire service activities. If we do not violate the public trust, we will at least confuse it.

I would not order my firefighters to hose down an unruly crowd. I have never been asked to do this, I might add. Other activities would have to be weighed case by case.

Marc D. Greenwood, lieutenant, Akron (OH) Fire Department
Response: The use, or should I say the misuse, of fire/EMS personnel acting in law enforcement capacities thrusts personnel into roles that are at cross-purposes with the longstanding fire service mission of preserving life and property. The glorious history of the American fire service is replete with instances of firefighters routinely performing in courageous and self-sacrificial fashion. The IAFC’s denunciation of law enforcement officials masquerading as firefighters is fit and proper. The very notion of unleashing hose streams on the citizenry is abhorrent, and it rekindles the searing and grotesque memories of the Birmingham demonstrations of 1963, in which the Birmingham Fire Department was the willing accomplice of one of the most effete and repressive governments in modern history. The fire department unleashed high-volume water streams solely designed to facilitate the rescue and preservation of life and property, to devastate physically and psychologically citizens (many of whom were children between the ages of 10 and 18) who were simply seeking to transform theoretical rights into living realities. The deployment of fire/EMS personnel in law enforcement capacities is fraught with ethical, legal, training, and political considerations and problems.

The tragic and horrific events of September 11 have precipitated a torrent of unabashed love and appreciation for fire/EMS personnel. To quote Abraham Lincoln, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” The tragic line-of-duty deaths have forcibly borne out the decidedly self-sacrificial nature of the job. For the first time in modern history, firefighters are properly viewed on a large scale as heroic figures. Firefighters have earned their esteem by their blood, sweat, tears, and toil. To compromise this legacy would be a calamity.

Every May, University of Akron students engage in a rite of passage they call May Day. This raucous “celebration” consists of college students swilling beer with the result that they participate in criminal activities such as burning furniture and indiscriminately pelting fire apparatus with rocks and stones. Our fire/EMS personnel routinely respond to calls in the area during May Day. In the face of intense provocation, our personnel are to maintain restraint and professionalism. Our administration has made it clear that fire personnel are not to unleash fire streams on students engaging in criminal behavior. Our administration has rightly discerned the line of demarcation that exists between the jobs of fire/EMS and law enforcement personnel. Our department does utilize specially trained SWAT-paramedics, but the paramedics don’t engage in police duties. They function as paramedics in treating injured police personnel or civilians.

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G. Moose Barkdull, battalion chief, West Valley City (UT) Fire Department
Response: Our department has never “hosed” down an unruly crowd of people, but once in the late 1980s we were asked to do so at a racing event that turned into a riot. Police asked the battalion chief at the scene to hose down the crowd. He refused and thus started a confrontation with police officials. As more police arrived on the scene to assist in crowd control, they placed more pressure on the battalion chief to assist with water on the crowd. At one point, police asked the battalion chief to report to the police command vehicle to talk with police command officers about the events taking place.

Police officials threatened to arrest the battalion chief for “failure to obey a lawful order” if he refused to order his crews to “drown” that crowd. Again, he denied the request. As the unruly crowd was brought under control and was exiting the park, people voiced their support of the firefighters’ not getting involved in the situation beyond helping those injured during the riot.

As fire/EMS personnel, how can you justify inflicting injuries on people with the use of hoses or monitors and then wonder why they would not want you to help them with those injuries? We are known as the organization people call to help them in their time of need; over the years, we have strived to gain that trust with the public that we serve.

At the present time, and largely because of the unfortunate events of the past several months, in the minds of the public, we are the greatest heroes, and I strongly believe that we deserve that recognition. Now that we are on top of the mountain, why would we want to destroy that trust, just to control and possibly injure a few people in an unruly crowd? We would lose everything and gain nothing. How long would it take to get that trust back? Is it really worth it? I say no.

Richard B. Gasaway, chief, Roseville (MN) Fire Department
Response: In preparation for the International Society of Animal Genetics (ISAG)

Conference held in Minneapolis this year, our department was faced with an unexpected situation. Intelligence sources revealed that the protesters were planning to use “super soaker” squirt guns filled with gasoline to spray law enforcement officers and then set them on fire.

The Minneapolis police and fire departments, along with the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department, had prepared for this event for months. Since our city, Roseville, borders Minneapolis, three facilities identified as potential targets for protester activities would involve a response of our police department.

Just days prior to the start of the conference, we were asked by our police department to respond as well to incidents involving protesters at these target locations. We were being asked to provide fire protection in the event a police officer was doused with gasoline and set on fire. Needless to say, we were not thrilled with the request and, as delicately as we could, informed the police that we would not expose firefighters to hostile situations of civil unrest. Our decision was challenged. To garner support and gain perspective on this, I called Captain Don Lee from the Los Angeles City (CA) Fire Department. He has extensive experience in planning events in Los Angeles and also helped plan the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. I also contacted Bill Chandler, patrol division commander for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. He also serves as a deputy chief in our fire department and is a nationally known instructor on weapons of mass destruction and counterterrorism.

Both Lee and Chandler concurred with our decision that it was not appropriate for fire personnel to be engaged in an environment of civil unrest. With their input, we drafted a policy that we put in place prior to the start of the ISAG Conference. It clearly stated the actions the fire department would and would not take during situations of civil unrest. This policy was communicated to our police department and to our staff. In an effort to assist our police with protecting themselves from fire, we provided them with fire extinguishers to carry in the trunks of their police cars for the duration of the event.

Jimmy Taylor, battalion chief, Cobb County (GA) Fire & Emergency Services
Response: Our involvement in police matters is strictly as a support role. We will stand by at any police event when requested to do so. We will supply medical support and any equipment the police may need, such as a battering ram. We will not spray anyone with hoselines or try to control an unruly mob.

We are, however, looking into a “tactical medic” position within the department that would allow some of our paramedics to participate in police operations. We are still in the planning stages, so I am not sure of the proposed extent of involvement in police operations for this person. We have determined a need for paramedics to train with police SWAT and other special operations teams to minimize the response time to an injured officer.

Thomas M. Cunningham, fire officer IV, U.S. Naval Academy Fire Department
Response: Police personnel dressing and acting like firefighters sounds like an idea that would work. First, plant some smoke from a device or machine. The engine rolls up, and the mock firefighters climb off and enter the structure. Out come the occupants and the criminals, the police collar the criminals, and the media plasters the story everywhere. Now every criminal knows that whenever they see a firefighter, he may be a law enforcement officer.

Let’s first examine the risk vs. benefits of this scheme. The benefit is that a career criminal who has probably been in and out of the system all his life will once again be arrested-one less criminal on the streets. But the criminal may soon be out of jail on bail and awaiting trial. The risk is that community members will stereotype all fire/ EMS personnel as police officers. This is a dangerous scenario. Who wants to be shot because they received the wrong address or knocked on the wrong door responding to a person with stomach pains at 2:30 a.m.?

Many of us are old enough to remember the civil rights protest of the 1960s. How many of us feel uneasy when we see footage of the Selma and Birmingham marches? During these protests, the police chief ordered the fire department to turn deck guns and handlines on the protesters. If this were to happen today, it would be a public relations disaster for the fire service.

The Philadelphia Fire Department came under heavy scrutiny years ago after members of a group called MOVE barricaded themselves in a rowhouse. A police helicopter dropped an explosive satchel on the roof. The detonation started a fire, and the police ordered the fire department not to respond to the area because of gunshots fired. An entire block of rowhouses was destroyed. The inaction of the fire department came under fire from the public, even though fire personnel were ordered to stay away. Another public relations disaster.

Public opinion of the fire service is at an all-time high. The heroic actions of those who died, survived, and rescued on September 11 have elevated us in the eyes of the public. Why would we sacrifice this by allowing police officers to pose as firefighters?

Steve Kreis, assistant chief, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department
Response: The Phoenix Fire Department’s stance on these issues is very straightforward. We do not permit any police agency (local, county, state, or federal) to use our facilities, apparatus, uniforms, equipment, or personnel for police actions. We agree fully with the stance of the IAFC. Very simply, after the police actions are concluded and the police have moved on, we still have to live and respond in the neighborhood. The bad guys remember who helped the police, and we don’t have any way to protect ourselves from people who would want to do bad things to firefighters. The police agencies cannot protect us on every incident or every minute we are in our fire stations. Clearly, anytime a police agency uses fire department facilities, equipment, uniforms or personnel, the public’s trust in the fire department has been violated.

The police department’s mission is to take police actions (fight people); our mission is to prevent harm (fight fire and deliver EMS), survive, and be nice. Each agency needs to remember its mission and act appropriately.

We don’t have any way to defend ourselves against bullets. We have a very good relationship with the Phoenix Police Department at all levels. We encourage their officers to use our fire stations as much as possible for nonpolice activities, provide support for some of their police actions, and provide medical treatment for any injured officer. Our facilities are community resources that are open to the public. For a fire department to remain effective in the community, it must be considered “neutral.” The only way to remain “neutral” is to not pick sides. If we pick a side in the short term, it will inevitably be the losers in the long term.

We have been asked in the past and even recently to allow police agencies to use our resources for police activities. The Phoenix Police Department understands our philosophy and supports our role in the community; this has come after years of vigilance on our part and clearly an understanding attitude by the local law enforcement authorities. Most of the time any requests we get of this nature are from state or federal agencies that are not familiar with our policy. After an explanation, they typically find other ways to accomplish their goals. This issue is much better resolved before an incident takes place.

We don’t provide body armor for our members, put razor wire around our stations, or try to keep community members out. We are there for the community, we deliver service to all, and we always try to remain neutral. This has proven to be a much safer and more effective philosophy for everybody.

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