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Violent attacks against firefighters/paramedics: What departments and legislators are doing

31 Aug 2017 9:06 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Gregory L. Walterhouse, Bowling Green State University, IPSA Member

In a study of the public’s perception of the fire/rescue service 51 percent of respondents had an excellent perception of the fire service, with 27 percent reporting a good perception and 12 percent a satisfactory perception. This reflects an overall positive perception of the fire service by 90 percent of respondents. Yet, firefighters and emergency medical services personnel are increasingly the subject of violent attacks sometimes resulting in serious injury or death. A recent study by Drexel University found that paramedic’s risk of being violently assaulted is 14 times greater than the firefighters they work alongside.

Violent attacks against firefighters and EMS personnel are not limited to the United States, as the South Wales Fire and Rescue Service reports a 16 percent increase in violent attacks against on-duty fire fighters in less than two years.

Assault types, locations vary

Assaults against first responders include being shot, stabbed, bitten, physically assaulted, being attacked with fireworks and motor vehicle hit-and-run. The following are representative examples of the types of violent assaults being perpetrated against first responders.

On December 24, 2012, two firefighters were shot to death and two were wounded in an ambush in Webster, New York. More recently shots were fired at a Vallejo fire station and engines in Chicago , Savannah and Youngstown among others have been struck by bullets. Fortunately, there were no injuries in these incidents. Illustrating the hazards associated with Narcan use for overdose reversal a Missouri man attempted to shoot fire and EMS personnel after being administered Narcan.

In Houston, a Fire Captain was stabbed in the eye by a man he was attempting to rescue from a fire and in San Diego two firefighters were stabbed while giving medical aid to a man. In another incident a firefighter was physically assaulted by a resident he was attempting to remove from a burning house in Logansport, Indiana which contained a drug growing operation.

Further, a Florida Battalion Chief who was assisting a deputy at the scene of a motor vehicle crash had his arm bitten so severely by the suspect that it required surgery and hospitalization. Firefighters in Dallas responding to a dumpster fire were attacked by individuals shooting fireworks at them. And, a firefighter working a “fill-the-boot” event in Lansing Michigan was killed in an intentional hit-and-run incident.

These are but a few examples of unprovoked attacks and assaults on firefighter and EMS personnel which have prompted departments and state legislatures to take action.

Dispatch and PPE

The first line of defense in protecting first responders is good dispatch information. When dictated by dispatch information, fire and EMS should stage at a safe distance until arrival of law enforcement. The second line of defense is situational awareness. First responders must always be aware of their surroundings and ensure that the scene is safe. First responders must follow their instincts and “street smarts” that only come with training and experience. If the situation does not seem “right” it probably isn’t.

Due to the increased danger of being shot, the Federal Emergency Management Agency suggests that all firefighters be equipped with ballistic vests when responding to mass shootings and other critical incidents. This is exactly what many departments are doing.

A few of the departments that have purchased ballistic vests for fire and EMS personnel include: FDNY, Cleveland, Detroit, Fairfield, California, Portsmouth, Ohio, Gwinnett County, Georgia, Pinellas and Orange County in Florida and Orlando which also purchased ballistic helmets in addition to vests. While some departments are equipping apparatus with ballistic vests for critical incidents other departments are issuing ballistic vest directly to personnel to be worn daily.

The Mt. Pleasant, Michigan Fire Department went a step further. In addition to providing ballistic vests for their firefighters, they have, in cooperation with their Police Department trained firefighters in self-defense tactics including how to avoid confrontation. They have also trained and equipped firefighters with pepper spray which is carried during deployment at special events.  Self-defense training is easily obtainable for all departments through the Firefighter Support Foundation’s free download program Self-Defense for Firefighters and EMTs that consists of a PowerPoint program and video presentation.  

Other departments are developing rescue task forces and other integrated response programs which coordinate the response of law enforcement, fire and EMS for response to active shooter and other active violence incidents.

Integrated response however should not be limited to the big incidents and should be used on day-to-day incidents where first responders are subject to potential acts of violence. Effective policies must be in place for any type of multidisciplinary integrated response to be effective.

The Report of the Joint Police/Fire Task Force on Civil Unrest recommends that “policies and procedures for joint ventures should be developed, approved and accepted by all agencies involved, in order to clearly establish responsibilities and avoid discrepancies and disagreements during the crisis” (USFA, 1994). The report goes on to indicate that the ideal scenario is one where policies are adopted in a joint police/fire preparedness stage and anticipate as many contingencies as possible.

Legislative action

State legislatures are also taking action in response to the increased acts of violence that target first responders. Last year the Governor of Kansas signed into law H.B. No. 2502 which permits public employees including firefighters to carry concealed handguns while engaged in official duties. In Texas H.B. No. 982 introduced in January 2017 would permit certain first responders to carry handguns while engaged in the discharge of the first responder duties. The Texas senate recently endorsed a similar bill. A similar bill has been introduced in Michigan. H.B. No. 4842 of 2017 would exempt firefighters and medical first responders from pistol-free zones. Also in Michigan, S.B. No.127 of 2017 would make the commission or attempt to commit a felony against a police officer, firefighter, or emergency medical service personnel a two year felony to be served consecutively with any other charges. Ohio, H.B. No. 38 of 2017 recently passed by the House and now under consideration by the Senate imposes extra prison time for criminal offenders who assault first responders or members of the military.  

All first responders perform dangerous work which has become more dangerous due to violent attacks on those that are there to help others. While there is always the potential for injury there are steps that can be taken to lessen the probability of first responders being assaulted and injured.  Though there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to protecting first responders, there are a number of viable options, some that come with little to no cost, from which departments can develop their own custom programs and procedures to protect their most valuable asset.

About the Author

Greg Walterhouse is a member of the IPSA and a full-time faculty member in the Fire Administration and Masters in Public Administration programs at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Management from Oakland University, a Master’s degree in Legal Studies from the University of Illinois and a Master’s degree in Management from Central Michigan University. Before joining BGSU he had over 35 years of experience in fire/rescue and emergency management with 18 years in upper management, including Manager of Emergency Services and Chief of the Rochester Hills (MI) Fire Department and Chief of the Mt. Pleasant (MI) Fire Department.

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