By Chief Robert A. Mitchell, Ret., CFO, CEMSO, PSC, FPEM
There were 54 first responder fatalities during the first quarter of 2019 (January – March). The three most common causes include gunfire-related (n=18), vehicular related (n=16), and medical emergencies (n=9). Sadly, these types of deaths are recurring in the public safety profession.
Gunfire-related. The 18 gunfire-related fatalities in Q1 2019 include three K9s and 15 officers. Gunfire-related fatalities occurred during arrest warrants, vehicle pursuit, investigations, accidental ambush attacks, domestic call, barricaded subjects and traffic stops.
Historically, law enforcement officers were not shot for stopping a driver with a tail light out. They were simply trying to enforce laws to make the roads safer for other drivers, and this is still an officer’s intent – safety. Given that times have changed, officers and departments need to assess if they are doing everything possible to prevent gunfire-related deaths. Before duty, officers need to ask themselves:
- Am I mentally prepared for the day?
- Am I mentally prepared for this call or encounter?
- Am I wearing my vest?
- Have I made the proper radio calls?
- Have I observed the situation for a possible threat?
While these questions may seem like rookie stuff, the seasoned professional tends to get complacent about details over time. An officer can never let their guard down, no matter how routine an encounter may seem.
Below are some recommendations from the International Public Safety Association InfoBrief: First Responder Line of Duty Death Causes and Prevention Strategies:
- "Enhance body armor by decreasing its weight and increasing flexibility, provide for more coverage, and enhance it ballistics, shielding capabilities. Body armor should protect vital areas against any form of penetration, whether a projectile from a firearm or a penetrating object intended to stab the officer.
- Consider body armor for other first responders. With increasing frequency, first responders are being assaulted and targeted. The number of non-law enforcement responders who are stabbed or shot at is increasing.
- Consider protecting emergency vehicles with bullet proof glass, increased armor plating, motion detection and gunshot detection. These technologies are available today and agencies should explore enhanced protection for emergency vehicles. This recommendation of additional armor is based on the data that suggests officers were intentionally targeted and ambushed while in their patrol cars.
- Ride in pairs. If the resources are available, first responders – especially patrol officers – should ride in pairs.
- Increase firearms training. Law enforcement officers are required to undergo a certain number of hours of firearms training. Unfortunately, the time allotted for training is generally very limited and does not correlate to the volume of gun violence in the UNITED STATES Departments need to review their training hours and add training hours to keep their officers safe.
- Carry patrol rifles. Agencies need to review their current policies and review recent research to see if they should equip their officers with patrol rifles.
- Review after-action reports. Request after-action reports from other agencies and consider applying those lessons learned in your department."
Vehicle related (assault, struck by a vehicle crash/accident). There were 16 vehicle-related fatalities in Q1 2019. This includes vehicle crashes/accidents, assault and being struck by a vehicle. No other group in the world multitasks like a first responder: lights and sirens; navigating traffic; clearing intersections; operating a two-way radio; getting updates from a mobile data terminal; receiving calls from dispatch on a cell phone with that one more piece of information. However, emergency drivers must start putting things down. It’s life dependent.
When reviewing data from third party sources, there is very little information cited to explain the crash (e.g. excessive speed, distracted driver or medical emergency). Further, there is no consistent data whether the occupants were wearing seat belts, whether the airbags deployed or did materials and equipment dislodged that may have caused a fatality.
Medical emergencies. There were nine line of duty deaths in Q1 2019 from cardiac arrest and medical emergencies. While the job of a first responder is inherently stressful, being in good health is part of the job. This is probably the thing that can be most controlled by an individual. Below are four tips for first responders to adopt:
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Eat right. Do not overindulge.
- Exercise multiple days per week.
- Practice self-control.
All first responders age, and with age the body changes and health or medical issues surface. It is imperative to get an annual physical exam.
According to the International Public Safety Association InfoBrief: First Responder Line of Duty Death Causes and Prevention Strategies, "Beyond an annual physical, agencies have developed policies that require wellness exams based upon certain circumstances as officer involved shootings, major fire or rescue emergencies and mass casualty events. This medical surveillance program is mandatory, conducted by the department safety officer or other dedicated medical resources, and the first responder may not return to duty until the examination or observation is complete. Included in these programs is healthy diet education, teaching the firehouse cooks how to prepare healthy meals, how to teach patrol officers to avoid fast food, and how to teach EMS personnel foods to avoid. It is a combination of these initiatives that will or have, over time, created a healthier workforce."
First responder line of duty deaths will continue to occur, but there is an opportunity to reduce the number of fatalities. Avoid distracted driving. Wear a seatbelt. Go to work with the right mental frame of mind. Talk to a clinician. Get an annual physical. Be health conscious. Maintain situational awareness. Learn what is causing line of duty deaths to prevent them from happening.
About the Author
Chief Mitchell is a retired Chief Fire Officer, Chief EMS Officer and Professional Emergency Manager. During his 40-year career, he has worked in law enforcement, fire service, EMS and emergency management. He now consults and teaches around the country. You can reach Chief Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
International Public Safety Association InfoBrief: First Responder Line of Duty Death Causes and Prevention Strategies
International Public Safety Association InfoBrief: Assaults Against First Responders
International Public Safety Association InfoBrief: Fitness, Nutrition and Wellness Tips for Public Safety
Scene Safety Infographic
Internal Situational Awareness Infographic