PROTECTING FIREFIGHTERS FROM VIOLENCE
BY DANIEL R. BECK
Many times, we respond to incidents at which we will encounter people who are out of control. Such incidents include emergency calls involving alcohol and drug use, gang violence, crime, and civil unrest. The Los Angeles Riots demonstrated to firefighters everywhere that we no longer are immune from violent attacks by the people in our community we are called to serve. Violence is widespread and can occur on virtually every call to which we respond. In most cases, firefighters will be called to treat and help the victims of violent attacks. The question has become, What can we do to stop violence against firefighters?
Of course, whenever violence is involved or there is an indication that it may be involved, the police should be on the scene to secure it and to make it “secure” for responding firefighters and other emergency personnel. What I want to stress is the fact that even though police may be on the scene, you still must make your safety the first priority. Experience has shown that even though on the scene, police may be engaged in another activity and may not be immediately aware of an imminent hazard such as a concealed weapon on the scene or individuals involved in a fight. Even a scene that appears to be safe can suddenly turn violent. Your department`s first priority when arriving at the scene, therefore, is to provide a safe environment for all personnel.
SECURING THE SCENE
The following are guidelines for how to secure the scene before taking action and are based on our SOPs.
Use fire line tape to establish a barrier between firefighters and the crowd. It provides a control line for police to enforce. Citizens generally respect the tape line when it is needed to control an incident.
Call police to secure traffic and crowds. These are the primary responsibilities of the police at a fire department emergency scene. When police arrive, a fire department member should establish a liaison with the on-scene ranking police officer. Explain what is needed to control the scene.
Provide for lighting when required. All emergency responders will be able to see more of the scene when good lighting is provided.
While responding to a call, consider whether there is a potential for violence. Depending on the type of call, police may also be responding or dispatch may contact them for support. A shooting, stabbing, or fight (domestic or public) should serve as a red-flag warning that more violence may occur. A man down, suicide, and overdose must be closely evaluated for potential violence. Gang violence will receive an automatic police dispatch. Call for the police immediately if you believe the call has potential for violence.
Size-up starts as soon as you receive the call. Initial and follow-up information available from the alarm can be important. (In most cases, police will be on the scene prior to our arrival and have us stage when the scene is still dangerous or unstable.)
Look for the following:
Are the police on the scene?
What is the nature of the call?
What types of injuries are involved?
Are drugs or alcohol involved (altered level of consciousness)?
Is the fight still in progress?
How many units will be responding? Is there a need to stage?
Is the person who caused the injuries still on the scene?
How many people are involved?
When responding to parties, police should be dispatched. Again, make contact with the ranking police officer and describe the security needed.
Remember to follow staging guidelines when responding to a potentially violent call.
INCREASING SAFETY AWARENESS
The following guidelines for minimizing hazards are based on the experiences of field personnel.
The public`s perception. Keep in mind that it is not always positive. Some people on the scene may fear having their criminal activity detected and may not respect firefighters. In cases that involve domestic or gang confrontations, the people who caused the injury you were called to treat may not want the patient to receive emergency care.
Some danger signs include displays of antagonism, verbal abuse, and lack of cooperation. Even bystanders who appear passive or cooperative can be potential threats. Keep in mind that anybody could be a potential threat or danger.
When dealing with customers with an altered level of consciousness resulting from the use of alcohol/drugs or from mental illness, introduce yourself as a firefighter and explain that you are there to help. Ask what you can do.
Uniforms sometimes can be threatening to people. They may confuse firefighters with police officers or may not like any authoritative-type figure. To prevent confusion about who you are, introduce yourself as a firefighter as soon as possible.
Weapons. Always be aware that a person nearby or out of sight may have a weapon. Train yourself to look for weapons–between car seats, in waistbands, in jackets, and under loose clothing.
Weapons may be common ones such as guns, knives, or other devices designed to kill or may be makeshift and can include any object not designed as a weapon although it can be used as one.
Spotting the apparatus (residence). Turn off your siren several blocks away if possible. Drive by slowly and pass the house. Spot the vehicle approximately two blocks past or before the site. This will allow you to approach the scene from a safe position (direction).
Approaching the building. Do not slam the door of the apparatus or vehicle. Keep the radio volume low. Gather information before entering the house. Look and listen before entering the house: Is an argument or fight in progress? How many voices do you hear? Consider the risks involved when looking in a window.
Apartment buildings. Keep the elevator door on manual so it will remain open. Check stairwell doors to make sure they are unlocked and can be used to escape.
Contact and control. As the contact, stand on the doorknob side of the door so the person opening the door will be forced to open it wide to see you. If there is a screen or security door, position yourself on the doorknob side of the inner door. Be subtle and nonaggressive in positioning yourself. Greet the homeowner with a friendly demeanor. Never stand directly in front of the door.
Entering the structure. Introduce yourself. If a dog is present, hold the doorknob and ask that the dog be secured. If you are asked to come in, ask the occupant to open the door. If the occupant insists, ask why he/she can`t come to the door. Scan the room for weapons, alcohol, drugs, and signs of violence. Look for makeshift weapons. Look for signs of weapons (bulges in clothing). Watch the occupant`s hands. Keep your crew in sight at all times. Never leave a crew member alone. Have at least two crew members together at all times. Have the person who answered the door lead you to the patient.
Separating disputants. Be aware that injuries resulting from domestic disputes often are reported as accidents (falls, for example). Never stand between disputants.
If you arrive at the scene to give emergency medical treatment to a victim of a dispute while police are en route and you find the dispute still ongoing, at least two members should move the victim to another location–where the other disputant cannot be seen or heard–before rendering treatment. At least two other responders should monitor the actions of the other disputant. Again, never get between disputants, and be alert for concealed weapons or other threats to safety.
Interview stance. If you suspect violence, stand at a partial right angle out of arms` reach (so the person must turn to attack you). Don`t stand against a wall. Don`t fold your arms (it indicates you are making a judgment). Don`t put your hands in your pockets (it may be construed as being unconcerned). Use physical barriers (coffee table, chair, for example) between yourself and a potentially violent person. Move people away from makeshift weapons. If you see a weapon, call the police.
Spotting the apparatus and approaching a vehicle. Park the unit to the rear of the vehicle (a full length from the vehicle) at a slight angle to the driver`s side so traffic will provide protection. Use safety cones where necessary. Wear safety vests. n
GUIDELINES FOR PROTECTING AGAINST VIOLENCE
Pay attention to all information provided by Dispatch and Deployment.
Have one of the portable radios tuned to the police.
Be aware of your surroundings and impending dangers once on the scene.
Display a confident, in-control attitude when approaching the scene and while on-scene.
Always look for the informal or designated leader of a potentially violent group and keep visual contact with that person, if possible.
Clear the scene of potential weapons.
Set up fire line tape to help secure the perimeter.
Get lulled into a false sense of complacency (the we`ve-been-here-10-times-before kind of thinking).
Ignore the potential for violence on any call. Discuss the situation while traveling to the call and maintain awareness while on-scene.
Ignore your gut feeling–when it doesn`t feel right, it probably isn`t.
Be confrontational. Be confident but not abusive to anyone or any group.
Be an easy target. Call for the cavalry early, and be prepared to bail when the need arises. Don`t be a dead hero.
Remember: Your best tools are common sense and awareness. n
DANIEL R. BECK, a 21-year veteran of the fire service, is deputy chief and manager of tactical services for the City of Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department. He has associate degrees in fire science and advanced emergency medical technology and is a member of the IAFC and NFPA.