The Downstream Effect of Acts of Violence Against First Responders

How many times WHEN growing up did you hear the expression, ­“Actions have consequences!”? For most of us, it was a lesson taught at a young age and reflected routinely thereafter throughout life. However, as I have aged, I have also learned “inaction,” too, has consequences; and when it pertains to acts of violence against first responders, those consequences can and will have a broad, wide-sweeping impact on more than just the targeted audience.

A Sad Reality

Tragically, violence against first responders is becoming a familiar sight for us working in the industry. Seemingly every day across the nation, a well-intentioned emergency servant is faced with an act of aggression that leaves him either physically hurt or emotionally severed. For some, the event is minor in severity; for others, it is life-changing, impairing their professional career. Regardless, the act of aggression leaves a lasting impression.

As firefighters, “risk” is a factor we have all agreed to undertake in the pursuit of serving our fellow citizens. It is inherent to the job and, for us and our families, it is a hazard we have accepted. Nevertheless, contradictory to what some might believe, firefighters’ burdens are not for them (or their loved ones) alone to bear. Sure, they will continue to undergo the assaults resulting from acts of aggression; but, as time will tell, society will become afflicted and, when this happens, the communities we protect will be left stranded in the flooding aftermath.

For this reason, before the dreaded dominos fall, it is imperative that city leaders and fire department chiefs take notice and circumvent “upstream,” preventing what would be an inevitable “downstream” chain reaction.

(1) Violence against first responders is becoming a familiar sight for those of us working in the industry. (Photo by U.S. Air Force Airmen 1st Class D. Blake Browning.)

(1) Violence against first responders is becoming a familiar sight for those of us working in the industry. (Photo by U.S. Air Force Airmen 1st Class D. Blake Browning.)

Breaking News

With a country and world interconnected through technology, very little goes unnoticed; this is especially true when it comes to acts of violence against first responders. Frequently, from a helicopter’s bird’s-eye view, a patrol car’s dash-cam lens, or even a bystander’s cellphone video screen, the hostile events are seen up close and personal, leaving very little to the viewers’ imagination and even less to their speculation.

These alarming incidents are broadcast nationwide; and, subsequently, the serious, life-threatening nature of the episodes are capturing the public’s attention, garnering their collective support for the victims. In general, this is a symbolic gesture of “togetherness” (and it is much appreciated). The community identifies with the travesty perpetrated and sympathizes with its casualties.

But from its limited vantage point, it does so indirectly and mostly with empathy largely in spirit. Regrettably, as these types of events continue to intensify, the symbolism the community displays will unavoidably turn into a deeper, intimate connection and, before long, the community will begin to suffer directly from the first responders’ victimization.

Warning: Rough Waters Ahead

With that said, let’s open the discussion with a harsh dose of honesty. Targeted acts of violence are perhaps the most ominous threat facing first responders to date, and that is not likely to change. The real possibility for every call to deteriorate into a “fight for your life” exists, as violence is a permanent part of the human condition. Unfortunately, most fire and EMS departments lack the capacity to recognize and repel these threats. Training in this area is either absent or inadequate, and the emergency servants are left empty-handed while trying to uphold the oath they took. Because the community’s safety hinges wholly on assignment and execution from their first responders, this is a problem affecting us all!

Links of the Chain

Philosophically speaking, there are multiple links within the chain of emergency service. The obvious ones are found among the differing agencies of police, fire, medical, and dispatch, where each is tasked with delivering differing first-tier service responses to those calling 911 asking for help.

Additional links emerge the further and longer the urgency persists. The office of emergency management, city managers, public utilities, and local hospitals each play major roles in certain circumstances. And still there are other links, such as public schools, churches, grocery stores, and charitable groups that serve their distinct purposes, supporting the community’s unique requirements when it collides with an all-encompassing calamity.

Surprisingly, though, there is yet one more link in the emergency service chain; it is not often conceptualized but is extremely vital to the chain’s existence. It embodies the community as a collective whole. Frequently, the community is thought of solely as subdivided units (single members and businesses), with its influence leveraged only through these smaller components. But, the community at large is a functioning body with a vast span of responsibility. As a matter of fact, perhaps the community’s most noteworthy corporate contribution is fulfilling its duty to support the costs of emergency service by distributing funding through taxation and supplying a workforce, enlisted from its citizenry base, to operate in the front lines of emergency service (as firefighters, police officers, and other civil servants).

The community is a rare model. It is as important in its totality as it is individually. Essentially, the community starts and stops the emergency service chain, enclosing it full circle.

A Duty to Act

Unquestionably, the community is a vested partner in emergency services and the obligation to act on their behalf is a contractual one. Nevertheless, concerns over this predicament are not escalating rapidly enough to the level they rightly warrant.

The destructive characteristics of violence are visible but, as of now, little comprehensively has been done from fire and emergency medical services (EMS) leadership divisions to address the noticeable void. Consequently, the emergency responders are left to work, albeit unintentionally, in perpetual vulnerability while they try to manage an emergency scene and the community is forced to wade into the rising tide of susceptibility.

The Natural Laws of Emergency

We all know that natural laws govern the natural world and that when it comes to communities and their emergency services, some natural laws play a key crossover. “What goes up must come down” is not only a lesson on gravity but, equally, a lesson on the “gravity” of targeted acts of violence against first responders.

Plainly stated, all acts of aggression, directed at responders or otherwise, when inflicted, never just go away. A wake is left behind; and, once launched into existence, the by-products of the act come crashing down to the community below. Each individual victim, family member, friend, coworker, neighbor, and concerned citizen reaps the proverbial whirlwind of the sown seeds of violence.

It is naïve to assume that the literal damage of any hostile action is contained exactly within the borders of its origins (i.e., house, business, family, and so on). There are always repercussions that reverberate outward. The community at large experiences the destabilizing force of violence. It is permanently affected with the haunting memories of terror, and it wrestles with a suffocating cynicism for its future.

To make matters worse, emotional unrest is compounded by the fact that those who were targeted in the attack are the very ones called to “save the day” and stop the crisis. An unequivocal uncertainty can’t help but swell within the hearts and minds of all who surround the epicenter. Who do you look to for safety when your defender stands in the crosshairs?

Additionally, since acts of violence never happen in a vacuum, when they do occur within a community, they change the way the members live. Sometimes individuals become hesitant to go outside after dark, while others are overly wary of any strangers in their midst. Worse than this, at times people will isolate themselves from their neighbors and then fill in the blanks of any “unknown” with biased interpretations, opinions, or distortions that are costly to collective unity. Understandably, anxiety levels rise where peacefulness is disturbed; and once the reflection of self-security is shattered, those pieces cannot be put back together to look like new.

This alternate, painful reality is detrimental to a community’s welfare. Time is realistically the only healer of this type of injury but, disappointingly, the scars will always remain.

We’ve all heard the news soundbite, “Things will never be normal again,” and this is a true sentiment. Spider webs of violence stretch to every corner of a community, serving as a constant reminder of the tragedy it beheld.

(2) The community is a vested partner in emergency services, and the obligation to act on their behalf is a contractual one. (Photo by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Lauren Padden.)

(2) The community is a vested partner in emergency services, and the obligation to act on their behalf is a contractual one. (Photo by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Lauren Padden.)

Upstream Contamination

In a similar fashion, another profound natural law having an influence within the emergency service world is the notion that what happens upstream eventually make its way downstream. This theory, unlike the aforementioned principle that focused on the vertical, umbrella-like dynamic between a community and its first responders, describes the horizontal, “if … then …” linear interconnectivity present.

In this illustration, consider the “upstream” component that firefighters and EMS operators are expected to insert calmness into a chaotic situation. (This is where I will deviate from including police officers within the first responder grouping. Although they are certainly targets of violence, their universal support from department executives for training in this arena is not in question.) Also consider the “downstream” element of the communities serviced by those upstream agencies.

From an upstream perspective, most departments across the country spend very little time and energy equipping their firefighters and medics with how to identify potential violence and then combat it. To state it another way, these responders are asked to participate in the firefight but are not instructed in the teachings of reading smoke or afforded the protection of an attack line. Whether it is because of tightly crowded training schedules, reduced operating budgets, or restricted resource availability, this is one critical discipline with no corresponding agenda.

In reciprocating fashion, downstream runoff is a direct result of upstream deficiency. Just as every hazmat expert knows, once a contaminant makes its way into the river current, if it is not quickly and effectively contained, it will surely travel downstream, contaminating all exposed to its uninterrupted flow.

Each community and its members depend heavily on their emergency service capabilities. When there is a lack of training in any skills-based area, the community is in jeopardy, and this is particularly true when relating to targeted acts of violence against first responders. If emergency personnel are unable to effectively do their job because they are not qualified to work within the hostilities present, then they really aren’t meeting the demands of those depending on them.

Can you imagine a crew attempting a high-angle rope rescue with rescuers who not only do not know how to effectively tie knots but who also are afraid of heights? The victim would be better off remaining on the ledge than placing his life in the hands of this combination of incompetence! Sure, we can drop ropes over the edge and “hope” to pull the victim to safety, but what business do we have there in the first place, calling ourselves the professionals or experts? We’re not truly serving the function for which we are intended.

I concede this is a drastic example, but it does present a real depiction of the importance of upstream training to meet downstream contingency. When first responders are not prepared psychologically or tactically to handle the violence they may confront, their communities will ultimately witness firsthand deficits. Clearly, the downstream effect can be debilitating and, conspicuously, it is tied to upstream tributaries.

Naturally Unnatural

The final natural law in play accompanies an undeniable primitive precept: Surviving is about self-preservation. In this case, when fire and EMS crews are not trained, they lack crucial guidance and are inclined to take fewer chances in provoking an uncertain conclusion. They “slow down” as a method of self-defense.

To help explain this paradigm more fully, consider a study conducted by Chicago’s Inspector General’s Office (CIGO).1,2,3 It measured the Chicago (IL) Fire Department’s response times to fire and medical emergencies within its individual city districts. Although this study is not complete and does not stand alone to help identify cause or conclusion, it does provide remarkable insight.

The centerpiece of the investigation highlights a significant discrepancy in response consistency. When the numbers are analyzed across the board, interestingly, fire response times met the mark (or were, percentagewise, closer to the National Fire Protection Association standard) much more often than medicals. Furthermore, the notoriously high-crime-ridden area on the Southside, and in particular the Ninth Ward, witnessed statistically slower times compared to “safer” areas of the city.

Obviously, on occasion outlying variables such as traffic, weather, and data entry errors can distort the figures, as were noted within the report. But what cannot be contested is the indisputable fact that when firefighters were responding to calls for service to perform duties for which they regularly train and mentally prepare (i.e., fires), their numbers were overall better. In addition, it was also grossly evident that when responding to locations where a high potential for violence was present, the percentages were the lowest.

As was previously declared, the CIGO’s report lacks context and did not collect (or share) some key data points to answer questions including the following:

• “Were responding units coming from quarters?”

• “Was violence present and, if so, known by responders?”

• “When violence was present, what was the total time to patient care or crew intervention?”

I wholeheartedly acknowledge that without this information, I cannot assess causation with 100 percent accuracy. Even so, through rational and calculated scrutiny, with a commonsense application, I can discern a stern and prudent warning regarding the report’s overarching implications. If firefighters and EMS are responding to areas traditionally known for violence, a subject to which they are not routinely trained or readily equipped in the same way they are for other disciplines, they will react—subconsciously or consciously. Given that fire engines on the Southside just aren’t made to drive “slower,” I suggest crews must be slowing them down. Statistics aside, logic seems to dictate this survival mechanism.

Let me be clear, my intention in accenting the findings is not to place blame or irresponsibly throw allegations at firefighters or departments. That is unfair. And because the study does not expressly draw a causal correlation for the variances, I will not entirely attribute the depressed response times to purposeful delay, but I will argue it is a contributing aspect.

Like most levelheaded humans would, when it comes to risking their lives in settings of violence and judging the odds of “winning the fight” (and not dying or becoming injured) are not in their favor, they tend to recede until the prospects have changed, bettering the probable outcome. Firefighters, although known to be hard chargers, unnaturally yield to their natural instincts of survival.

At the end of the day, predictable and unpredictable behaviors emerge when acts of violence surface; and, despite the Chicago study’s definite shortcomings, all in all it is a glaring tale of a community trying to hold its head above water while submerged in emergency.

Stop It Before It Spreads

What’s more, the possibility of another unintended drawback appears when first responders are apprehensive to respond. Every good firefighter knows a speedy response is integral to control a fire before it grows past the point of no return. Comparably, the potential for an “incipient-staged” medical incident to escalate beyond what it should also exists. If trained and situationally aware emergency responders can arrive and control a scene in a timely manner, then acceleration of violence is thwarted. I know hindsight is always 20/20, but when situations are allowed to get “out of control,” they do just that!

A frightening picture is painted of how disruptive targeted acts of violence against first responders can be to a community. If fire companies and related medical units are continually tasked with rendering aid into emotionally charged and highly volatile human interactions without receiving adequate training, then all are destined to experience disaster.

The Pendulum Swing

Dangerously, when there is a lack of necessary training, once crews arrive on scene, two distinct pendulum swings transpire:

• On one end, hesitation and fear develop. Hesitation among first responders materializes because of a lack of knowledge or “know-how,” and fear fatally follows because of the human tendency to imagine worse-case (“what if”) rationale. Both inhibiting conditions lead to slower reaction speeds and paralyzing caution, each of which slows mental processing and performance from firefighters and EMS. For the citizen who called for assistance, he now must withstand his emergency longer than judicious expectations would necessitate.

• At the opposite end, the pendulum swing is equally unsettling. It produces overconfidence and recklessness, which can be similarly devastating for the crew and citizens alike. Practically speaking, a false sense of security is probably worse than a lacking sense, and when it comes to violence, calculated precaution is always appropriate. If a crew is merely “winging it” as a defense mechanism because they are uneducated and untrained to interact in a violent setting, they will move too quickly and endanger not only themselves but also the innocent people they were dispatched to assist. Their bravado presents an unsafe facade!

Enlightenment Is Empowerment

Both extremes are not healthy and not reasonable for professional service men and women. On the other hand, empowerment is ultimately what firefighters and EMS providers desperately need! Empowerment provides insight and practical tools. Although there is no substitute for experience, education and specialized training can bridge a great divide. Therefore, it is the responsibility of city leaders and fire department decision makers to mandate this instrumental training associated with targeted violence. They are the proverbial dam that filters and divides upstream water surge from downstream end users. The community is depending on their interception to shield the downstream waterways. Leaders must lead this charge. Their commitment to the cause is paramount.

The Experts in Our Own Backyard

Where to look for innovative instruction is always the toughest question to answer. Although many times it is unclear who the right, capable authority to use for training an agency on a specific subject matter is, in this case I think it is apparent. Look to local law enforcement, who are not only skilled on the basics of violence but explicitly versed in your city or district. They deal with the exact same people, social constructs, and geography. Their expertise is irrefutable. They can teach and train their fellow public servants about this topic in a likeness that an outside agency simply cannot replicate.

Don’t get me wrong, firefighters do not need to learn all the police officer tricks of the trade. But rather, they should focus specifically on skill sets pertinent to their emergency service assignments, including situational awareness to potential violence and personal/group reactive “protectionary” tactics (if they do happen to find themselves in a dreaded altercation). Rest assured, a little bit will go a long way toward safety and security.

Also, by employing local police officers and sheriff’s deputies to provide this type of training, it undoubtedly will enhance cooperation between the historically rivaled occupations. The obvious value here is a heightened communication on service calls with a boosted understanding of each other’s expectations as well as generally improved working relationships. Whether it is a small, isolated event or a large, multiagency, resource-intensive, overly demanding, unified command-oriented structured incident, it is essential to have all teams on the same page for the benefit of all the involved participants. After working together on a training emphasis such as this, first responders and their communities will be better prepared to manage any emergency they encounter.

Last, the economic price to use local police officers for this training necessity is relatively inexpensive. In most regions, a mutual cross-training arrangement can be made, which keeps overtime budgets minimally untapped while meeting the requested exercise details. Moreover, the bonus of firefighters returning the favor and training cops on innovative fireground operations is a precedence long overdue. This is an example of a symbiotic association at its finest; it is a huge advantage to all parties involved, with the community receiving the largest dividend.

The Day We All Know Is Coming

The problem of targeted acts of violence against first responders is everybody’s problem. We are all in this together. As demonstrated, every entity (citizens, cities, public servants/services, and so on) downstream is affected by the upstream events. If the present status quo is maintained and emergency service personnel are allowed to continually engage in treacherously violent scenarios with little to no training for the battle they face, then a resounding ripple effect will certainly ensue.

At the end of the day, inaction is the wrong action. It has too many unbearable consequences for everyone involved. Acts of violence are and will continue to be life altering for the civil servants they target. The responsibility, when all is said and done, lies in the hands of those in charge who, with proper foresight, can forgo a rendezvous with fate.

A popular quote from an anonymous United States Navy SEAL states, “Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion; you sink to the level of your training!” Well, if we as an emergency service profession do not mandate change, then we are asking our brothers and sisters to partake in something tantamount to a “losing mission.” This is not what they signed up for, and it is not what the community requests or expects. Upstream training and preparation, though, are exactly what they are counting on from their first responders to stave off any downstream demise. This can only be achieved when everyone is onboard, sailing the ship in the same proactive, protective direction.

Thankfully, the bond between the emergency services and their community is a sincere, heartfelt one. The citizens are noticing the danger facing their first responders and feeling our pain. Time and time again, they express their deepest compassion toward the tragedies we endure. They honor us at memorials and raise funds in support of their fallen heroes. They realize our plight and pray earnestly for change. They care and, as of now, caring is enough. But the waters are subtly rising, and conditions are slowly changing (as the old saying goes, “The writing is on the wall”). If an upstream intervention is not hastily instituted, a true community catastrophe will arise. And when this happens, the citizens will have a genuine ax to grind.

Don’t Overreact or Underreact

Of course, not every emergency situation is life-threatening and, equally so, by the pure nature of being a first responder, the very crux of the job demands an insertion of personnel into an unstable circumstance. Admittedly, some perils cannot be avoided. However, learning to avoid predictable situational awareness red flags to potential violence and developing specific skill sets to address it after it begins are fundamental, consequential tactics needed in every responder’s performance toolbox.

If these valuable attributes are not immediately prioritized into training curricula nationwide, then emergency service workers will remain in victimhood. And, ironically, the ones harming them will not just be the criminal perpetrator but also the sworn leaders they respect and salute.

Resources

1. Chicago Office of Inspector General, “Chicago Fire Department Fire and Medical Incident Response Times Audit”; Chicago Inspector General Report, 2013, http://chicagoinspectorgeneral.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/CFD-Response-Time-Audit-Report.pdf.

2. Chicago Office of Inspector General, “Chicago Fire Department Fire and Medical Incident Response Times Audit: Follow Up Inquiry,” Chicago Inspector General Report, 2015, http://chicagoinspectorgeneral.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/CFD-Response-Time-Follow-Up-Report.pdf.

3. Chicago Tonight, “Chicago Fire Department Response Times,” WTTW Chicago Tonight, October 28, 2013, http://chicagotonight.wttw.com/2013/10/28/chicago-fire-department-response-times.

Jason Gallimore served as a police officer for more than two years before becoming a firefighter with Poudre (CO) Fire Authority in 2014. He is with the hazmat team and is a certified hazmat technician. Gallimore has a bachelor’s degree in speech communications and a master’s degree in computer information systems from Colorado State University.

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