WORKING WITH THE POLICE AT MVAs

Police are a different breed! That doesn’t make them bad, just different. All in all, I believe that the same person who becomes a good police officer could also become a good firefighter. The difference between “us” and “them” comes with the first day of recruit training. They are taught different priorities, responsibilities, and procedures.

When we get a large warehouse involved in fire, it probably becomes a major incident to us. When we send one or two units to a motor vehicle accident (MVA) on an expressway or interstate highway, it’s no big deal for us for the most part. However, for your city’s “Finest,” the converse is true. For the large warehouse fire, all the police need is one or two police cars to block the few closest hydrants. However, shutting down and diverting traffic on an expressway or interstate highway becomes their “third alarm.”

In Toledo, we have no written policy for working with the police at an MVA. Like most cities, we have had problems with the police and their priorities at MVAs. Usually, it’s in the form of our wanting to close the road or, at a minimum, a lane or two, while the police want to keep traffic flowing. As a side note, I have received three written reprimands in my career. One was for closing the overhead door too soon on the heavy squad when I was a lieutenant. The other two were given to me as a chief officer because I swore at the police. (They did do what I wanted immediately after the utterance of the profanity.)

John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.

Question: Does your department have a policy for working with law enforcement at motor vehicle accidents (MVAs)? Have you had problems working with law enforcement at MVA scenes? How did you resolve them?

Rick Lasky, chief, Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

Response: We do not have a standard operating procedure (SOP) for working with our police department at MVAs. As I’ve mentioned in previous Roundtable columns, we have an outstanding relationship with our police department and rarely have any issues while operating at an MVA or any other incident, for that matter. The few times we did have an issue pop up involved a misunderstanding or miscommunication about a lane closure or something like that, but it didn’t last long. And back to that relationship thing, if we were to have any problems, there would be no difficulty in working it out with the officers’ administration. I know quite a few other fire departments that have some pretty serious conflicts with their police departments. We’ve worked very hard not to end up down that road.

Steve Kreis, assistant chief, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department

Response: We have a very comprehensive SOP for operating at MVAs. A few years ago, we lost Firefighter Tim Hale when a drunk driver ran into the back of one of our rescues (ambulance). He and Captain Dan Donahue were loading a patient. Luckily, Dan survived the incident. Our protection at one of these incidents is an enormous concern for everyone in the department.

Our SOPs are periodically revised with newer/safer methods of operating at these types of incidents, and our labor/management Research and Development Committee is consistently evaluating new types of warning devices to make members and apparatus more visible to motorists.

Basically, our SOP states that our members’ safety is more important than providing for traffic flow. We always use our apparatus as protection during operations. The Phoenix Police Department also understands the importance of our safety at these incidents and works with us routinely to move traffic away from our operations.

Every few years, we seem to come across a highway patrol officer who seems to believe that traffic flow is more important than our safety. The other day, for example, a highway patrol officer “detained” one of our captains by handcuffing him, placing him in the back of the patrol car, and threatening to arrest him. This was the first time that I can remember one of our members being “detained.” After a few meetings, I came to believe that in many cases the officer simply does not understand our needs at these events. To make my point, who in their right mind would stand in front of the media, local political bodies, and their boss(es) and peers and say that they believe firefighter safety is second to traffic flow?

In these instances, I believe there is a lack of understanding or communication on one or both sides. Our company officers or battalion chiefs manage these events appropriately 99.999 percent of the time. Every once in awhile something gets out of balance. Based on the incident the other day, we have initiated a series of joint lesson plans and training exercises to better understand each other’s needs. But, again, nobody (including police officers) should ever sacrifice safety and operate in an unsafe environment to allow for better traffic flow. I guess the lesson in our event is that we should have been proactive in the training exercises instead of reactive.

John O’Neal, deputy chief, Jacksonville (NC) Fire Department

Response: The department does not have a written policy on working with the police at MVAs. Most of the incidents that occur involve establishing a safety zone with our vehicles to protect first responders and the victims. Law enforcement wants to contract the size of or eliminate the safety zone to get traffic flowing normally as soon as possible.

In the absence of a formal written policy on conflict resolution, the department has always encouraged that the issues be handled at the lowest appropriate level of supervision. Company officers are encouraged to talk with their peers in law enforcement and tell them that we operate as we do to protect lives. If issues cannot be resolved or if they escalate in intensity, mid-level or administrative officers get involved to resolve the conflict. Post-incident reviews/ critiques provide an excellent forum for sharing information and perspectives; however, it is often difficult for law enforcement to attend this session because of call volumes and differing schedules.

My experience has been that both sides at the administrative/leadership level have the same goals and concerns and place officer/ firefighter safety at the top of the list. The problem typically surfaces when personnel at the operations level are under pressure dealing with multiple tasks or a lack of resources on-scene to handle the situation effectively and get tunnel vision as opposed to looking at the overall picture.

Freddie Fernandez, battalion chief, City of Miami (FL) Fire Rescue

Response: With Miami being such a densely populated city, it is imperative to get law enforcement in place early during auto accidents to assist with traffic flow and crew safety. We generally have a good working relationship with our police department. The poliuce department recently has been trained in the incident management system and is working well within unified command. On most incidents larger than routine accidents, the police department dispatches a sergeant, who reports to the fire department commander and sets up the police branch of the operation. Our only difficulty is that there may be a delay in response during peak hours or police shift change, generally during weekday afternoons.

Also, when responding to incidents on highways that run through the city, which are under the jurisdiction of the Florida Highway Patrol, there sometimes can be a long delay in response. This increases the dangers for our crews, who have to block traffic as well as engage in operations. Sometimes, we have trouble getting the proper location and direction of accidents on the highways, which can lead to delays in response. This generally involves calls made from passersby on cell phones and taken by dispatchers unfamiliar with the area.

Gary Seidel, chief, Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department

Response: Our department does not have a formal policy per se, but we do have a strong working relationship with the police. It entails a good understanding of each other’s roles and command and control issues pertaining to MVAs. Whether police or fire arrive on-scene first, our employees realize that we depend on the other agency for a successful and safe mitigation. We work primarily with three law enforcement agencies: the Hillsboro Police Department, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, and the Oregon State Police. We also work with a host of other mutual-aid law enforcement agencies.

We must remember that the same hazards and safety considerations and some of the tactical measures apply to all agencies working at the scene of an MVA. The fire department focus is on eliminating hazards at the emergency scene, rescuing (and extricating) trapped persons, providing medical aid to those requiring assistance, and transporting the injured to a local medical facility. Law enforcement focuses on protecting the scene so additional injuries and accidents do not occur, establishing alternate routes for traffic, and investigating the accident scene.

Having law enforcement personnel and vehicles there to establish an advance warning system, a buffer zone around fire department personnel working at the scene, and to redirect traffic helps to ensure we can focus our concerns on the patients while keeping in mind that motorists still can prevent hazards.

I have had issues with law enforcement at the scene of a motor vehicle incident. The best way I have found to deal with it at the scene is to remember that the patient always comes first. Any disputes or issues can be resolved at a later time, preferably at the conclusion of the incident, in a safe area like the police or fire station.

The key is to understand each other’s role. We should work together to mitigate the incident and train together. You accomplish that through cooperation and communication.

Thomas Dunne, deputy chief, Fire Department of New York

Response: In New York City, all fire and some police units carry equipment for accident responses. If vehicle extrication is required, the first extrication-equipped unit at the scene (fire or police) initiates rescue activity and continues working until the operation has been completed or relief is needed.

At a joint fire/police operation, the ranking fire and police commanders are expected to confer with each other to determine the actions needed to resolve the incident. Both commanders issue orders to personnel within their chain of command.

FDNY policy calls for the use of the most effective tools available, whether they are fire or police issued. In addition, any “special talents” of available firefighters or police officers must be considered in establishing assignments.

In the past, our city has had isolated fire-police confrontations at vehicle accidents. Some led to “battle of the badges” media headlines that unjustly smeared the reputation of both departments. Occasionally, problems have arisen from the gray areas of our accident protocol. A commander’s view of the “most effective” means of operating and the “special” abilities of his personnel can be somewhat subjective.

Most firefighters and police officers are hard-working public servants who operate very well together at emergency responses. However, it takes only one stubborn individual to disrupt an operation by refusing to cooperate with another agency.

The key to resolving such conflicts lies in developing strong but reasonable police and fire commanders capable of exercising control over their personnel. On occasion, any commander must be willing to take a step back and provide support to the operation instead of insisting on running the show.

Not every community has an interagency protocol for motor vehicle accident scenes. Where they do exist, they are not always effective. Ultimately, it comes down to the attitude and behavior of the fire and police personnel involved. To a great extent, that behavior can be shaped by a commander who views the operation as a chance to help civilians in need and not as an opportunity to expand the power of his organization.

Jeffrey Schwering, lieutenant, Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services

Response: My department currently does not have a written procedure for dealing with law enforcement; however, the safety of all emergency personnel and civilians involved in the MVA remains the top priority. When multiple agencies work together, some problems are bound to occur. We have encountered minor problems from time to time. Understanding on both sides has worked to quickly solve the problems. When a problem is encountered, the company officer or duty chief and the police supervisor on the scene attempt to solve the issue after the incident has been concluded. All agencies need to concentrate on safe operations, for our protection as well as for that of the civilians involved in the vehicle accident.

Craig H. Shelley, fire protection advisor, Saudi Aramco

Response: My department has no formal policy regarding working with the local law enforcement at MVAs; incidents involving both agencies are handled very professionally and with no problems. Both agencies have a mutual respect for each other. My experience in other agencies was not so positive. In one department, the local law enforcement did not want the fire department to respond to an MVA unless the police were on the scene and verified the need to have the fire department respond. This slowed the fire department’s response as well as the response from a city agency.

Many times, the fire department may be the first representatives of the city or town on-scene at the accident. For many persons involved in an accident, the experience can be very traumatic. Why should they have to wait for the police department to arrive first? In the above city, the police chief convinced the mayor that the only reason the fire department wanted to respond was to justify its existence. The mayor issued a written directive informing the fire chief that the department was not to respond to MVAs unless the police requested the response.

Unfortunately, one of the first instances in which the new policy was used was a vehicle that crashed into a private dwelling, barely missing the outside gas meter. The fire department was delayed considerably in its response. The mayor then rewrote the policy to allow the fire department to respond to limited events of an MVA-those where an injury was reported during the 911 call. The above instance highlights the need to have written policies regarding response to MVAs and the joint operations of law enforcement and the fire service.

Protocols must be established. We all know that with the technology used today, a fire department response can be cancelled at any time and units returned to quarters. Many departments may have response policies that define how the units are to respond-with or without lights and sirens, and so on. It may be much safer to have a fire apparatus block the scene instead of a police car. All agencies must work together, but judging by some of the stories I have heard, protocols must be established to prevent egos from becoming involved.

The City of New York has had to issue a memorandum of understanding to delineate roles and responsibilities at emergency scenes. Problems can and will occur. Anticipate them, and develop the protocols early.

Josh Thompson, battalion chief, Avon (IN) Fire Department

Response: Our department does not have a formal policy for this. We have a professional courtesy and understanding that our safety comes first. I have not experienced any problems. The relationship between law enforcement and the fire department is crucial to our safety; we must strive to foster the best service to the community. Poor relations can lead to unwarranted risks and additional hazards that can and should be avoided.

Matt Rettmer, lieutenant, Castle Rock (CO) Fire and Rescue Department

Response: We currently do not have such a written SOP. We have a working relationship with law enforcement. We must work with city, county, and state agencies. The city officers seem to understand our operations on MVAs and usually are a pleasure to work with. The county and state are different animals. Each officer is different; the main issue is if we need to shut down the road. State Patrol arrives on-scene and immediately thinks it has control of the accident. These officers seem to forget about personnel safety; this is where we have problems. State Patrol says it has jurisdiction and wants to control the scene; it is most concerned about getting traffic moving. The fire department is more concerned about scene safety, personnel, and the injured. I can understand the need to get traffic moving, but it does not have to compromise the safety of on-scene personnel. I read each week that someone is struck by a car or hit by a truck; we can control whether this happens or not. I generally secure the scene and attend to the injured first and then worry about opening the road.

Lance C. Peeples, instructor, St. Louis County (MO) Fire Academy

Response: Because of the large number of police and fire agencies in St. Louis County, it would be difficult to formulate a formal policy. A large fire protection district might cover 10 municipalities, each with its own police department. Conversely, St. Louis County police officers might deal with any of the 42 fire departments or districts in the county. Fortunately, problems seem to be rare, and members of the police and fire agencies generally work together to ensure the safety of citizens, police officers, and firefighters. When problems do occur, they are generally solved quickly at the street level; rarely, they may involve a supervisor from both agencies.

John Green, second assistant chief, Wanamassa Fire Company, Ocean Township, New Jersey

Response: Our department has a very good working relationship with the police department. The police give us no problems on any of the highways or state highways when we request the roads be closed. The protocol is that the engine positions itself between the scene and oncoming traffic to block traffic.

The drivers all position apparatus to protect themselves as well if pumping the truck is required. The police department will shut the road down approximately 100 yards before the scene on request. Most of the time, the officers have it closed before we arrive and then confer with the officer in control on when they can open lanes and which ones. We also have a protocol that says the state highway will be closed until a car fire is extinguished. Once the fire is out, a lane or lanes are opened to relieve traffic congestion. In most cases, the officers leave at least one lane open until the first-due engine arrives and then closes it.

Joseph D. Pronesti, captain, Elyria (OH) Fire Department

Response: My department has had a very interesting history of battles with our law enforcement officers regarding MVAs. Because of political battles with a past mayoral administration, the Elyria (OH) Fire Department was not permitted to respond to MVAs until called for by the police department or the private ambulance service that had the city’s EMS contract.

Many times, our crews would arrive to find victims trapped for quite awhile, and we would have to play “catch up” to extricate them. It came to a head in the early ’90s. At an accident, a photo of one of our fire officers arguing with a police officer was published on the front page of our local newspaper. Both members had to be restrained by fellow officers. The problem finally came to a head, and changes were made regarding our department’s response to MVAs.

Today, we have an SOG that has two levels of response. Type I MVAs require the response of the closest engine company and our heavy rescue truck. The first-arriving officer assumes command, and we work with the private EMS provider in rendering care.

Type II responses require the two companies mentioned above, plus the shift commander (assistant chief). The officer in command for the fire department works closely with the on-scene police supervisor to coordinate transportation, traffic control, and scene safety.

Our department also covers a large portion of Interstates 80 and 90. When responding onto the interstates, the officer in command of the first-arriving engine has the option of calling for our ladder company or an additional engine to help block the traffic and add a measure of safety to the scene.

It’s unfortunate that it took media attention years ago to bring about changes, but we now have a strong SOG that helps create a safe environment for our responders as well as the victims.

Our relationship with our local police department has never been better, and that’s what it takes-a total team effort with the goals of safety and patient care as priorities in the minds of all responders.

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