By Jeremy Jones
Are violent attacks and/or assaults on first responders a new phenomenon? Of course not; they have been going on for years. The difference is that over time, these assaults have become more and more violent and the “It’s part of the job” mindset is beginning to change. On average, at least 50 percent of all paramedics/EMTs polled have been assaulted on some way in the last year. Your department has a preplan of action for most emergency responses in your area and I’m sure you train according to those preplans. Do you train for violence? Does your department have a preplan in place for a violent confrontation on the fireground? If your policy is simply to call the police for assistance, that just isn’t good enough. Remember, when seconds count, the police are only minutes away. You or someone from your crew will have to deal with this problem, in some shape or form, for a period of time until help arrives.
First responders –for the purpose of this article, firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics–are at a high risk of being assaulted due one common denominator of their job. Other people! You must interact with people during very traumatic, emotional, and volatile times. Do not have the denial mindset, that it won’t or can’t happen to you. Remember, more than 50 percent of you will be assaulted this year. In other words, if you have not been assaulted yet, well…your time is coming.
Self-defense starts with maintaining good situational awareness at ALL runs you go on. It will become a habit if you truly work at it, and a great side-effect is that you will start maintaining good situational awareness off-duty: with your family in the mall or grocery store, etc. The key to prevailing in a violent encounter is avoiding it altogether. But if that was always possible, training for violence would be unnecessary.
As you know from experience, you will be working with emotionally charged, mentally challenged, and drug-addled, mind-altered patients and non-patients on your scenes. If you’re aware of your surroundings and your “gut-instinct” kicks in and tells you, “Hey, this is a bad place to be right now,” then trust it and listen to it! There is no shame in backing yourself and your crew out to an area of safety until help arrives. If you were expected to work in a violent environment then I am sure your department would have stepped up and issued you bullet-resistant vests, batons, tasers, and guns. You owe it to the people who love and care about you to not let bravado get you killed. Bravery has nothing to do with it; you are simply ill-equipped in that environment.
But if you find yourself having to interact with a possibly violent person, it is best to remain calm. Do not try to “out-shout” him (this is in no way gender-specific, by the way). Speak calmly, in an even tone, and smile. Never turn your back on the person and, unless you are immediately leaving the structure, never let that person out of your sight and go in to another room without someone watching their actions. You may think, “Good, he went in the other room, now we don’t have to deal with him.” In reality, he went to get a weapon to make good on his threats. While talking with this individual, always watch their hands and always keep your hands positioned in front of you in an “interview position” in case you have to quickly counter an attack.
Letting someone vent is not a bad tactic. Be sympathetic and make them believe you understand why they acting the way they are. Lie to them. Make up a story such as, “I know exactly how you feel. My cousin went through the same thing with his wife and I talked to him a lot during the whole ordeal.” Your goal is to buy time for help to arrive or for your crew to exit the scene, and as long as he is busy interacting with you about the B.S. story you just made up, then he is not hurting anyone. One word of caution using this tactic–be able to B.S. with the best of them. If he catches on that you are playing him for a fool then you just added fuel to his fire.
While this is happening, be sure to scan your area for possible weapons that may be used against you or that you could use, if needed. If this person suddenly becomes quiet and the color fades from his face and lips, you need to be prepared to take action because his body has gone into full “fight mode.” Many times, immediately preceding an attack, a person will instinctively check their surroundings–for police, witnesses, escape routes–and perform a grooming action by touching or rubbing their face, head, or neck. These acts may be quick and very subtle, but if they are seen and understood; it may give you that extra half-second to not be behind the reactionary curve in your violent confrontation. We teach that the best gunfight to be in is the one that doesn’t happen. Same analogy here; your best violent confrontation is the one that is avoided. Be aware of the evil in today’s society and be prepared to use your experience to recognize the propensity for violence at your scenes.
TRAINING TO PREVAIL
In today’s society, training for violence should go without saying. We must begin training for violence to prevail in a violent encounter. In my opinion, one of the most effective training models for violence is scenario-based training. Not only is it effective, it is cheap! In a training environment, put your people in a realistic situation they are likely to find themselves in (or possibly mimic a situation that did occur) and use role players to be the violent persons. Impress upon your people to use good situational awareness during the scenarios. They will quickly see the tactical advantage it provides.
I was recently training a group of first responders and at the start of the scenario the first EMT opened the door and saw me and my demeanor. He said, “Nope,” and quickly closed the door. He and his crew did not step one foot inside the room. Scenario over. Great job! Ask your local police department’s training officer for help with realistic role playing for the scenarios. Cops make great, uncooperative jerks, and they may also have training guns and weapons at their disposal. The old saying goes, “You can’t buy experience.” I believe that to be true, but realistic scenario-based training is a pretty good down payment on experience. These training sessions offer the opportunity to ingrain new and better safety precautions into first responders’ everyday activities.
Do first responders in your department “frisk” everyone (of possible weapon-possession age) before placing them in the rig? Make it part of your initial assessment each and every time. Bosses: Make it a policy to do so! The cops do it before putting anyone in their cruisers, so why shouldn’t you? In the last couple of years, many states have issued record numbers of conceal carry permits. Now figure in all of the criminals and gangbangers who are illegally armed…it’s best to assume everyone has a weapon and it is your responsibility to find it on them! Traveling 65 mph down the road in the rear confines of your rig is not the time to discover your mentally challenged patient has a box cutter and sees you as the box!
Another suggestion I have concerning training for violence is some type of hand-to-hand combat training. Ask a reputable police defensive tactics instructor or local martial art instructor to donate their time to your department for a good cause. Explain to them that you want to learn easy, effective techniques that involve three or preferably fewer actions to complete. I have been told by a very reputable and trusted defensive tactics instructor and can attest from experience–any tactic that takes more than three actions to complete will be forgotten or used incorrectly while under the stress of fighting someone. If you disagree with this statement, then you are probably someone who regularly trains at one of the fighting arts and great for you! But most of us do not regularly train and practice hand-to-hand techniques and need simplicity. At my training company I employ a wonderful martial arts instructor to teach me and my students the easiest tactics to remember and execute. An example of our simplistic teaching philosophy: we teach open hand (meaty, lower palm) strikes over closed fist punching. Out of instinct, males will most likely punch someone in the head or face with our strong hand in a violent confrontation. Now think about that tactic and human anatomy. We all know how strong and hard the human skull is versus the small bones in the hand and fingers. The risk of breaking your strong hand and taking it out of the fight or cutting a knuckle on a tooth and being exposed to his bodily fluids is too great. Plus, you can hit harder and faster with an opened hand because the muscles of the arm and shoulder are not as tense. Tension kills speed, ask any golfer. Try this experiment: Stand in front of the cinder block or brick wall at the fire house. Lightly punch the wall with a closed fist and increasingly hit it harder each time. It does not take long for it to get uncomfortable and painful. Now, do the same thing using an open-hand palm strike. Notice how much harder you can hit the wall without pain and discomfort. Train how you fight and you will fight how you train.
But this training should coincide with departmental policies and procedures for violent incidents. The policies should be revisited annually to be sure they are achieving their purpose. In my police department, each officer signs that he was given a copy of our “Use of Force” policy and we then review the policy; this is done at each and every annual firearms requalification. Leaders: Your people deserve to have some guidance on handling a violent situation. Any first responder who hesitates to use force to protect themselves or their crew, either from lack of training or fear of negative departmental repercussions, is a recipe for disaster. Those two seconds of uncertainty and hesitation is a lifetime in a violent attack. Provide your men and women a policy that allows the use of reasonable force to protect them from bodily harm. Your policy must include the use of deadly force to protect from serious bodily harm and/or death. First responders have to know and understand that it is completely acceptable for them to use deadly force in a situation that warrants it. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Ask a few different police departments for their use of force policies and pick and choose what you like from each to create yours. Along with mandating training for violence, I believe your policies should include guidelines on restraining out-of-control patients. I am not talking about the old leather-straps-buckles type restraints or the wrapping of 50 feet of gauze around their wrists and gurney rail. Let’s use today’s technology and give your people several sets of flex cuffs (they resemble large zip-ties) that quickly and safely restrain a violent person’s hands. They are fairly inexpensive, easy to use, and effective. In my career I have been called many, many times to assist the EMS with an out-of-control patient. My first course of action is always to handcuff both hands to the rails of the gurney. That usually solves 95 percent of the problem because we now control the most dangerous part of their body–the hands. Because of the blood-borne pathogen nature of your job, I suggest flex cuffs over handcuffs simply because they are disposable. But your people need you to give them these types of tools, training, and guidance to win the fight that is sure to come. If you are on the job today, it is your responsibility to make sure the next generation of first responders is better and safer than you are. Mandated training for violence and well written policies for violence can accomplish this goal.
Jeremy Jones is a 22-year veteran of law enforcement and currently serves as a chief of police in Ohio. During his law enforcement career he also served 12-years as a Level II firefighter. He is also the owner and a lead instructor of his training company, Family Protection Group, LLC (www.familyprotectionllc.us), which specializes in armed and unarmed self-defense tactics.
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