BY STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI
So what if the scene is unsecure? Do we really need to stage for law enforcement? How important to you is the safety of your personnel and yourself? What do you consider an unsecure emergency scene that would warrant law enforcement personnel to arrive first and determine that it is safe for fire service personnel to enter and perform their duties? In today’s world, it is not uncommon to see or read stories of emergency first responders (fire service and private ambulance personnel) who are not sworn law enforcement officers (meaning they are not trained in detaining suspects and, most importantly, they do not carry weapons or other items of force used to detain suspects) getting injured or killed at the incident scene. In many of these situations, law enforcement officers are nowhere to be found; they are either still en route or have not been called to assist emergency first responders.
How do we allow these unsafe situations to occur? As noted attorney, law enforcement officer, and fire service advocate Gordon Graham states, “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable!” So, if it is predictable that fire service personnel may get injured or killed while on a scene that is anything but a fireground, how can we best prevent such tragedies or near misses from occurring to our personnel? Let me put it in basic terms: If the emergency scene has the potential for violence to occur to one of our personnel, we should not be on-scene waiting or rendering care or even in the near vicinity standing by until trained law enforcement professionals have determined it is safe for us to enter the scene.
Why would we need law enforcement on-scene prior to our rendering care?
Law enforcement personnel are typically trained in a number of tasks that can increase our safety and reduce the risk of further injury to the patient and responders. Law enforcement personnel also carry appropriate weapons to detain or subdue individuals who are not “going along with the program” and care about nobody but themselves.
Why should we even stage?
You should stage solely for your safety and that of your personnel. One of the most important things I learned early in my career was that a primary goal of every company officer and chief officer is to ensure their personnel get a round-trip ticket home after the shift. Although it is unreasonable to expect that “everybody goes home” 100 percent of the time, we do have to make the effort to minimize risk and danger to our personnel to the best of our abilities because of the many situations or circumstances beyond our control. Our job is to safely and successfully mitigate the problem/situation to the best of our abilities. Sometimes, this may mean that someone in need of care may have to wait for us to assist them.
Unless you work for a public safety department where firefighters also work as police officers on a rotational basis and you have the necessary tools and equipment, not to mention training and power, to detain a subject or search a subject who may still be on-scene, you are encouraged not to unnecessarily put the lives of your crew members and other responders in jeopardy.
When should we stage and wait for law enforcement?
You should strongly consider staging until law enforcement has arrived and determined that it is safe for you to enter in the following situations (there may be others as well):
- Shootings/gunshot wounds (accidental, nonsuicidal included).
- Unknown medical calls/someone who calls for an ambulance or the fire department and just hangs up the phone without providing ample information.
- 911 hang-up calls.
- Person down (specifically in public areas or areas where illegal activities typically occur).
- Suicide attempts.
- Injuries from a fight (in progress or not).
- Domestic violence.
- Bomb scares.
- Overdoses (accidental or intentional).
Note: While the above may be controversial, I think it is better to err on the side of responder safety. Obviously, we will risk our lives to save savable lives, but that is only when we have a pretty good idea of what we are getting into, such as during a structure fire.
Who should make the determination to stage?
The company officer or any responder en route to the incident should make the determination to stage, not necessarily the dispatcher. Many dispatchers are trained to advise responders to stage until the scene is secure or to stage at the discretion of the responders. That is all fine and dandy, but we need to remember that most dispatchers are not trained to the level of first responders (fire, law, EMS) and don’t always have the gut instincts first responders do. I cringe when I hear company officers en route to an incident (at which I would be staging for law enforcement if I were the company officer) ask the dispatcher, “Should we stage?”
Every company officer should have the common sense, experience, training, and gut instincts to know on what types of calls to stage; they should not have to ask a dispatcher who most likely did not take the 911 phone call and was just given the information from a call taker. Dispatchers typically are trained to follow instructions given to them on the computer screen or by a person they are dispatching for (fire, law, EMS) and not necessarily make decisions. In the system I work for, our dispatchers are not necessarily trained to make decisions as much as they are expected to get direction from the field (which may or may not occur). In many fire departments, the dispatcher is the one calling the shots, making the decisions, and giving the direction. This can differ from agency to agency; the key is to know how your system operates.
When the rubber meets the road, the company officer should decide whether to stage. I have nothing against the dispatchers; they’re doing the best they can with what little information they have to work with, and they typically don’t have the same level of training or experience we have in the field.
It also doesn’t hurt to ensure that your dispatchers are trained to encourage responders to stage, and even prompt when necessary, but the ultimate decision should be left with the company officer who is typically functioning as the incident commander.
How should we stage?
The manner of staging seems to be controversial, depending on to whom you talk and what your department expects. To me, the best location to stage would be one of the following:
- A location that is out of the line of sight of the incident. You would be surprised at how many people think it is acceptable to stage a few houses away or less than a block away from the reported address, and in the direct line of sight of the address.
- A location at least a block away and on a different street so you are not in direct line of sight of the address.
- A location that provides you with at least one safe way to exit or reposition if something immediately threatens your safety, such as the suspect’s running or driving directly toward you.
- A location that will hopefully not put you in the spotlight or in a location where numerous bystanders or persons at the address you are responding to can flag you down, wave you in, or even get angry with you for not entering and just waiting outside. As a firefighter, when I did not have the liberty of making the final decision of where to stage, I experienced more than once angry bystanders running up to the fire engine and screaming at us to get inside and help the injured party. I’ve seen captains handle the situation in one of two ways, both of which did not provide for personnel safety.
- 1. The captain directed the crew to proceed in and not wait for law enforcement.
- 2. The captain advised the bystander that we could not enter until the police arrived and secured the scene. That made the situation worse and caused the bystander to become angrier.
- 1. The captain directed the crew to proceed in and not wait for law enforcement.
Either way, had we been appropriately staged on a different street and not been in the line of sight of the address, we would have stood a better chance at safely awaiting law enforcement instead of being emotionally sucked into a potentially dangerous situation.
How long should we stage?
There is no set time limit. Base it on your gut instinct and, more importantly, common sense. It concerns me when I hear company officers who have been waiting for what they feel to be a long time advise the dispatcher, “We’re going in” after hearing law enforcement was delayed or was not yet on-scene. What suddenly made the scene safe?
Another situation that amazes me is when law enforcement is delayed and the company officers says, “We’re going in” but keeps the ambulance staging. That is even more disturbing. Wouldn’t it be better to have power in numbers?
Some will argue that we must not wait for law enforcement if the patient’s condition is declining or if we are at risk of being sued for negligence if we wait too long. I consider an unsecure scene like a triage situation, even if there may be only one patient. In triage, we do the greatest good for the greatest number of patients. In unsecure scenes, we do the greatest good for the greatest number of responders and don’t add to the victim count.
When getting the word from your dispatcher that the scene is secure, before going in, ask a follow-up question if the dispatcher did not provide the answer: “Who advised you that the scene was secure?” I say that because I have heard the dispatcher say on numerous occasions something to this effect: “The person on-scene says the suspect has left the scene” or “The person is not violent.” How do we know for sure that the dispatcher was not talking with the actual suspect? The suspect could have been talking to the dispatcher and setting up the responding personnel for tragedy. And, how do they truly know the suspect has left the scene? The suspect may have left the immediate vicinity but could still be hiding on the property or within a neighboring property. I’ve had situations where I told the dispatcher: “We’re going to continue to stage and await law enforcement.”
What are some communications procedures to follow when staging?
When making the decision to stage, it is appropriate for company officers to advise the dispatcher that they will be staging until the arrival of law enforcement and to remind the dispatcher to let them know when law enforcement has secured the scene. If your system has you announce you’re arriving on-scene over the radio, it’s not a good idea to announce your staging location. Why? Because many people (including folks who commit crimes) have the ability to listen to fire radio traffic over scanner radios. If your dispatcher asks you for your staging location, tell him you will call on the cellular phone with the information. Once on the cell phone, ask if it is that critical to know. Why does dispatch need to know? Announcing your location may be setting yourself up for ambush.
How do we know when the scene is actually secure?
This can be challenging, especially since most law enforcement agencies do not have fire department radio frequencies or communication capabilities. They either advise their dispatcher to contact your dispatcher (who may or may not be in the same room, at the same location, or even in the same city) and let you know the scene is secure (which can be time consuming), or they try to track you down in person. If they can track you down in person by hand signals or line of sight, you’re probably too close. Be careful about trusting hand signals and gestures, which can be easily mistaken or misinterpreted unless you have trained with them and know exactly what those signals mean. What one hand signal means to someone in law enforcement, or even another fire department, may mean something totally different to you in your fire department.
Ideally, your dispatcher will advise you that the law enforcement dispatch center told him the scene is secure for fire to enter. Now, be careful with terminology. Two of the most commonly confused terms are “Code 4” and “scene secure.” In reality, they mean two separate things. Code 4 in the law enforcement world usually means “no further assistance” from their personnelnot ours. Code 4 (four fingers in the air) in the fire and EMS world also typically means the same thingfor example, a fire apparatus arrives at a vehicle accident scene and the paramedics already on-scene in the ambulance give us the four fingers. It tells us they can handle the situation and we can clear.
The term “scene secure” is pretty straightforward and quite clear. Sometimes company officers confuse “Code 4” with “scene secure.” They will ask the dispatcher, “Can you check with law enforcement and ask if the scene is Code 4?” Or, it is not uncommon to hear dispatchers advise staging fire units, “Law enforcement called us to let us know it’s Code 4 for fire to enter.” Knowing there is a difference in the terms “Code 4” and “scene secure” should raise your eyebrows and level of suspicion so you will ask the dispatcher, “Is it Code 4?” or “Is the scene secure?” If the dispatcher says there is no difference or seems confused, obviously, some training is needed in your dispatch center.
Once you are sure the scene is secure, proceed into the scene with extreme caution; the scene may be secure, but suspects may still be present or individuals unhappy with life or your presence may be in the area. Continue scanning the scene. If you show up at the address and do not see any sign of law enforcement, immediately proceed past the location, look for a safe refuge area, and contact your dispatch center. Let the center know you don’t see law enforcement. Ask them to confirm law enforcement’s location if they are on-scene. When I was a company officer, I had a few situations where I was told the scene was secure (or Code 4 to enter). Law enforcement was not even on-scene yet, and the scene was not secure or safe to enter. On occasion, dispatchers can mix up responses and locations, especially if more than one of the same type of situation is occurring.
Is there any liability to us because of an excessive law enforcement response time?
I am not an attorney. If you want an exact ruling, I encourage you to contact an attorney. However, like anything else relating to law or perceived liability or negligence, it could be that you could ask a number of attorneys the same question and get different answers. What I do know is that I care more about personnel and my safety than I care about liability. Don’t get me wrong. We all need to be continuously aware of liability and negligence and all of those other legal and risk management terms we may be faced with if we don’t render a level of care that is expected or found to be what a reasonable responder in the same position would do. I also know that in today’s world, any one of us can be sued for anything; whether the other party is successful in its lawsuit is another story. Our prolonged staging may cause the patient’s condition to worsen. Remember, though, we did not cause the emergency; we are here to mitigate the emergency as safely as we can.
We need to stop thinking we are invincible and that everyone loves to see us arrive. In addition, we cannot give lip service to safety.
Until we can be confident that any suspects are no longer on-scene or in the near vicinity, it is not worth the risk of potential injury or death to our personnel by putting them in harm’s way. If someone really wants to hurt himself, in the case of a suicide or someone has hurt someone else in the case of a violent act, do you honestly think he is going to be happy to see us? In most cases, he will not be happy to see us because we represent authority. Isn’t it a possibility that he would try to injure us, especially if we got in the way of his objectives?
STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI is a 17-year veteran of the fire service and a battalion chief for the Santa Clara County (Los Gatos, CA) Fire Department, where he has worked since 1995. He was selected as the 2008 California Fire Service Instructor of the Year and has been an adjunct faculty member at Chabot College (Hayward, CA) since 1993, teaching a variety of fire- and EMS-related classes. He has a master’s degree in emergency services administration and is enrolled in the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. He is a state-certified chief officer and master instructor and has earned designation as a chief fire officer through the Commission on Professional Credentialing. He is the author of numerous articles featured in the leading fire service publications and is a regular speaker and presenter at fire service events across the country.