BY BARRY S. DASKAL
Quite often, fire and EMS responses bring us in contact with members of law enforcement. Police officers have an equally important job with all the requisite pressures and dangers we face. This article focuses on situations where firefighters and law enforcement officers are not “on the same page”; how to resolve these differences; and, more importantly, how to avoid problems before they occur.
TYPES OF LAW ENFORCEMENT MEMBERS
There are many types of law enforcement agencies: municipal police, private or contract services, city, state, and federal. Not all law enforcement officers (LEOs) are the same. Anecdotally, big city cops will be the first to point out: “I am not a LEO; I am a cop.” Not every police officer is a cop; the difference is very similar to fire service rivalries within houses and among neighboring companies or departments. Levels of authority, powers of arrest, policy, and procedures vary far and wide. It is best to know which law enforcement agencies you may be called to deal with in advance.
WHY CONFLICTS OCCUR
Firefighters and law enforcement officers are cut from the same fabric. We are all drawn to professions that place an ultimate value on protecting lives and property. To that extent, we are placing ourselves in positions that can compromise our safety, and sometimes the ultimate sacrifice is made in an attempt to save another. Statistically, line-of-duty firefighter deaths are slightly less than those of law enforcement. Both remain fairly constant. Our jobs are equal in most aspects, and the goal is the same: to protect life and property. Conflicts often occur in situations when our roles overlap or where there is duplication of service.
Across the country, many law enforcement agencies are trained in specialized emergency service or technical rescue operations. This can range from elevator rescues to wilderness search and rescue to parts of USAR teams and everything in between. Generally, law enforcement officers perform jobs firefighters tend to view traditionally as theirs in urban areas (particularly on the East Coast), where the fire load during the 1960s and 1970s didn’t allow firefighters the time to respond to emergency calls not involving fire. Today, particularly on the West Coast, where suburban sprawl has outpaced the fire service and we are unable to provide enough resources to cover the vast areas we are charged with protecting, law enforcement has diversified, trained, and taken on much of the workload. In today’s weapons-of-mass-destruction world, Homeland Security dollars have affected which agency has the leading role at many incidents. This leads to even more diversification and the potential for overlap.
TYPES OF CONFLICTS
Most conflicts between firefighters and on-duty law enforcement personnel have a common theme and tend to be recurrent. Like many other conflicts in life, it often boils down to individual personalities. Big, brawny, “type A” men and women all rushing to the same location to help others are occasionally going to butt heads. The desire to help and to be the first one on-scene providing that help can lead to tunnel vision. In general, it’s not the everyday patrol cop and the local engine company member who have problems. Often, troubles develop between the specialized fire and police department units.
My region has had several incidents between police officers (from various agencies) and firefighters. They have led to on-scene disagreements that have degenerated into physical altercations, some resulting in arrests of on-duty firefighters.1 Incidents do go both ways. At another clash, an errant rope thrown by a police officer at a dive incident allegedly knocked the mask off the face of a fire department diver.2 Although these incidents received considerable press coverage, don’t think for a minute that they are isolated to big cities.
Last year, a New Jersey state trooper arrested two local firefighters at an auto crash scene after the firefighters, believing their safety was compromised, shut down a portion of the interstate roadway against the expressed wishes of the trooper. The charges were eventually dropped, and the firefighters were required to apologize to the trooper. A nearly identical incident recently occurred in Missouri.
A determination needs to be made in advance as to what agency will play the lead role for a particular type of emergency. These agreements need to be formal and in writing. Most importantly, they also need to be followed without hesitation.
When firefighters and law enforcement officers cannot come to a good working relationship together, it will often be left up to an outside consultant, an independent arbitrator, or a government body to decide who is ultimately in charge of specific incidents. Our goal is to avoid getting to this point.
THE LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER AND AUTHORITY
Law enforcement officers are given considerable authority and power. They are granted the ability to take away an individual’s freedom and, if needed, take a life. Officers are taught that when on duty and in uniform, they are the ultimate authority in most situations. This is not an ego issue or an authority complex; it is for the officer’s safety. To maintain control of situations where the human variable comes into play, officers need an alert and assertive personality and to display a firm command of any given situation. This comes from Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) prison interviews with “cop killers.” A common reason given for their choosing to attack, fight, and ultimately kill a law enforcement officer was the feeling that the officer was not in control of the situation. On-scene conflict is likely when others, including firefighters, question a law enforcement officer’s authority. Again, law enforcement officers are taught to react assertively to any public challenge to their authority so they do not show any weakness to the individuals involved, bystanders, or other emergency responders.
SPECIFIC INCIDENTS WHERE PROBLEMS MAY ARISE
Vehicle crashes are incidents where problems commonly occur. The primary fire service role is to provide emergency medical care, extricate, and mitigate any fire or spills. The police role is to secure the scene with minimal disruption of traffic, conduct an investigation, take reports, and restore normal traffic flow as quickly as possible.
The best way to avoid conflict is by knowing in advance what each other’s goals are and to formulate an action plan to achieve those goals. If the firefighters need to close a portion of roadway for responder safety, they should coordinate lane closures with law enforcement officers at the scene. By working together, they can provide for roadway safety and still keep some traffic flowing. In situations where auto extrication is required as a result of some type of police action or the subject in a vehicle is wanted by the police, careful coordination between extrication teams and law enforcement is imperative. I was involved in an incident where firefighters had to operate on the vehicle while law enforcement officers had their firearms trained on a suspect. The law enforcement officers may need access to a suspect for a quick search of his person and the immediate area and to quickly secure/handcuff him. This is usually done as soon as the officer can get even marginal access to the subject. Firefighters may have to adjust extrication techniques or perform an extra step or two to extricate the patient and stay out of the line of fire.
In areas where the law enforcement agency is equipped to handle auto extrication, the first-arriving unit with extrication equipment should begin extrication. Law enforcement officers trained in auto extrication are generally taught in two- and four-person teams and work without the fire service criterion of having a charged hoseline standing by. In situations where law enforcement has commenced extrication, arriving firefighters need to be ready to augment the law enforcement operation and provide assistance, be it to deploy a handline, have backup tools ready to go, initiate patient care, or package and remove the patient when extrication is completed. The best mindset for the firefighters to have is to keep focused on the patient. If the patient were your family member, do you care who cuts him out of the car? Does it matter what patch the rescuers wear? Or, is it more important that the first “tool” on-scene go to work?
Firefighters need to understand that for law enforcement, maintaining the integrity of a crime scene is paramount. In areas where arson investigation is handled by the local law enforcement agency, firefighters should be mindful to preserve as much of the area of origin and limit the amount of damage from overhaul as best they can. They may have to remain on-scene after extinguishment for a period of time to assist in removing debris, gain access to evidence, or provide lighting. The observations of every firefighter can be critical, especially those on the first-arriving units. On EMS runs, aside from EMT lessons, such as not cutting through bullet holes or walking through pools of blood, it is important to fully document everything you observe at the scene, from the minute you cross the police line until the alarm is concluded. If any objects at the scene had to be moved to perform patient care, be sure to document that and report it to the investigators at the scene. Be prepared to offer the names of all fire department responders who crossed under “the yellow tape.”
We all get burned out dealing with intoxicated patients. Fire/EMS personnel tend to get even more annoyed when they get the call from law enforcement at 2 a.m. who apparently “can’t handle the patient” themselves. For law enforcement, dealing with intoxicated persons can be a bit difficult. If police are summoned to see an intoxicated individual, it is generally because the person has caused a public commotion or disturbance that requires outside intervention. Unlike television and movies, most law enforcement agencies don’t have a place where these people can be brought to sleep it off. Laws on public intoxication vary from state to state; quite often, making an arrest is not warranted or authorized. Many states have public health or mental hygiene laws that allow a law enforcement officer to take into custody any person who appears to be incapacitated by alcohol to the degree that the individual may harm himself or others. The custody is only for the transport to an alcoholism facility or hospital for emergency medical evaluation and treatment.
Many firefighters/EMS personnel resent that law enforcement agencies don’t transport these people on their own. There are several ways you can look at this. Many times, the ambulance is a better option than dragging away someone’s family member in a police car. Put the intoxicated person in the middle of a crowded public park, add a language barrier, and you have a pretty good recipe for disaster. The best way to view this situation is to realize that an intoxicated person is still a patient. He is not of sound mind, has an altered mental status, and is unable to refuse care or transport. Medical care and evaluation are needed along with transport to a hospital. Don’t forget that alcohol is in itself toxic to the body. The signs and symptoms of intoxication resemble many other medical emergencies. Alcohol intoxication can also mask other problems, including diabetic emergencies, stroke, and head injuries. Law enforcement officers are not typically prepared to make these evaluations. Fire/EMS providers are.
BLOCKING THE FIRE BUILDING/HYDRANTS/RESCUE SCENE
This is a recurrent problem that, as a police officer, even I have a hard time understanding. The primary job of law enforcement at a fire scene is crowd/traffic control. Law enforcement officers often discover fires and make initial notifications to the fire department, particularly at night. Law enforcement officers may believe there is a life hazard or need for immediate rescue. The urgency can result in officers leaving their patrol vehicle directly in front of a structure or a hydrant. I believe this is simply the result of being caught up in the moment. In urban environments, there may be nowhere for a law enforcement officer to move his vehicle once he is on the fire block ahead of fire apparatus. The first open spot he may turn into trying to get out of the way of fire apparatus turns out to be a hydrant.
This is frustrating to firefighters, but we must keep our heads about us. I admit it is difficult. As a first-due ladder company officer, I have had two fairly major conflicts with police officers regarding their parking at incident scenes. Both times, the police officers’ actions were dead wrong, but my behavior in confronting them was unprofessional and equally as wrong. The situations should have been handled differently.
Stretch your lines around a law enforcement vehicle, back your ambulance into the block, and position your aerial apparatus as best as you can. If time permits, have another law enforcement officer move the car. This is a situation that can best be handled by better training and preplanning on the law enforcement side. All the law enforcement agency representatives I spoke with in researching this article confirmed that their agencies have made efforts to improve their interactions at emergency scenes.
WHEN DISPUTES ERUPT
If you should find yourself at odds with law enforcement at an incident scene, here are some recommendations for turning things around. Above all, remain calm and noncombative. Cooler heads always prevail, and there are no special exceptions at emergency scenes. There is a major difference between being assertive and being aggressive. If there is no imminent threat to you, your crew, or the public, immediately step back. If supervisors from either or both agencies are at the scene, call on them to immediately come to an agreement on a course of action (if it is not already established in preincident action plans). In that time, the crew can begin to stage whatever equipment it feels is needed.
A great tool law enforcement officers use for dealing with verbally abusive civilians is referred to as “verbal judo,” which uses two separate statements linked by a deflecting word. It shows that you understand the aggressor’s statements; you then deflect the civilian’s statement with your definitive answer statement. An example of verbal judo would be, “I understand you need to keep this roadway open sir (officer), but I need to close this lane down temporarily to protect my crew.” The deflecting word in the statement is “but.” These statements are a professional and quick way to diffuse a tense situation. If both parties can clearly understand and express to each other their goals and concerns at the incident scene, peaceful resolutions are more likely.
Another helpful tactic, particularly on EMS runs (where there is no apparent criminal or suspicious nature to the call), is to actively solicit law enforcement officers’ help with the patient. Whether it is calming or removing family members and bystanders, moving furniture, or assisting with patient or equipment movement, it is not in a law enforcement officer’s nature to turn down a reasonable request for help. Remember, you both are there for the same reasonto assist the civilians who called you.
The absolute most important thing to remember from a practical standpoint is NEVER confront or argue with a uniformed law enforcement officer! You must not usurp his authority in public. When it comes down to it, the firefighter or EMS provider must back down. Regardless of the situation or whether you believe it is right or wrong, you will not win any on-scene confrontation with a law enforcement officer.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
A phenomenon probably more common on the East Coast, especially in metropolitan areas, is that law enforcement officers are often members of fire or EMS departments at home. This can be helpful, as these officers have a better understanding of the firefighter’s job at an incident scene. The same can be said for firefighters who are also members of a service in an adjoining jurisdiction. The additional knowledge these members bring to their hometown departments is invaluable, as long as they remember their roles both at work and at home. Likewise, just because you have a problem with a particular cop or an emergency service unit (ESU) at work doesn’t mean you should paint your hometown law enforcement agency or cops with the same brush.
(2) Multiple tasks are performed simultaneously. Rescuers, regardless of agency, using tools side by side can speed the operation.
Not every interaction between public safety agencies goes sourin fact, far from it. Every day, all over the world, firefighters, EMS providers, and law enforcement officers work seamlessly together. Firefighters occasionally come on a scene where law enforcement officers are struggling with perpetrators and lend a much appreciated hand. Law enforcement officers routinely respond and work together with EMS personnel, establishing great relationships that pay big dividends on both sides when officers or perpetrators are injured.
The most effective communication skill is establishing a rapport with each other outside of the emergency scene. It is the only way we can learn to effectively work together. Collaboration and cooperation necessitate a basic understanding and respect for each other’s roles and responsibilities. Knowing the capabilities of each agency we interact with goes a long way. You can avoid many problems by training together. The frequency of joint training is dependent on workloads and schedules, but a concerted effort must be made. In Chicago, a local fire captain gave fire tactics classes at the local police district on all three watches following a rash of incidents in which squad cars blocked hydrants, pulled up on the back of the trucks so they couldn’t access ground ladders, and congested intersections with police vehicles. Since that outreach, there have rarely been anymore incidents of that type.
(3) Understanding each other’s roles at this scene enables police and fire/EMS personnel to operate seamlessly to extricate and care for this accident victim.
In smaller municipalities where the conflicts are more along the line of sibling rivalry, police vs. fire sporting competitions are held with the proceeds going to charity. They help to establish a rapport and introduce members to one another so that there is already a personal bond before they meet in the chaos of an emergency.
When problems do occur, they need to be addressed as soon as possible after the incidentnot at the emergency scene. I am a firm believer in individuals’ attempting to resolve differences before pursuing formal complaint procedures. There are few problems between law enforcement officers and firefighters that can’t be solved over a cup of coffee or an evening meal at the firehouse.
A friend of mine who is an ESU police officer and a volunteer firefighter put it this way:
There are incidents where a police/fire response is necessary. There will be instances where fire will be the lead agency; there will be times where law enforcement will be the lead agency. From my perspective, I don’t care who is in charge as long as someone competent is doing the work. I let the suits and white shirts argue about who is the boss. I think most of the guys at the bottom feel the same way.
For an officer, either fire or law enforcement, it is sometimes difficult to accept that you might not be the one who is in charge. You might be used to giving orders, but there might be instances where you’ll be accepting orders or implementing responses and procedures that are given to you by someone outside your agency. Learning to put your ego or personal feelings aside and working toward the common goal, safety of the responders and of the victims, should be the focus. I have learned to treat firefighters and police officers as individuals, not blaming an entire department for a bad incident. We’re all individuals, and we all have good and bad days. Because I have a run-in with someone at an incident doesn’t make that entire department evil. The same can be said about cops. A bad incident with one individual cop doesn’t make that entire agency a bunch of idiots.
1. “Crime Scene or Rescue? Man in Chimney Causes a Clash,” Michael Brick, New York Times, June 28, 2003.
2. “Rescue Rassle: FDNY diver is tangled in rope tossed by cops,” Daily News (New York), Staff Writers, Friday, July 11, 2003.
BARRY S. DASKAL is a police officer/aircraft rescue firefighter with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. He is also a certified EMT-critical care and clinical lab instructor at the Nassau County (NY) EMS Academy. He has previously served as a police officer with the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and as a supervising fire alarm dispatcher with the Fire Department of New York. He has been a volunteer firefighter since 1990 and has served as a captain and training officer. He is a member of the Wantagh Fire Department in Nassau County, New York.