Close Calls: Firefighters Become Targets of Gunshot Violence

This two-part column looks at those times when we know at there is potential violence and when we do NOT know. We look at a working vehicle fire in Missouri at which a firefighter was shot and killed, a house fire in New York where firefighters conducting a search “found a victim aiming a gun at them” and a traffic accident at which a New York firefighter was shot in the back.

Our thanks to Chief Terry Merrell and the officers and members of the Maplewood, MO, Fire Department, in memory of Firefighter/Paramedic Ryan Hummert; Chief John Randazzo and 1st Assistant Chief James A. Campbell Jr. and the officers and members of the West Babylon (Suffolk County, Long Island, New York) Fire Department and Chief Robert Taylor, Firefighter/EMT Justin Angell along with the officers and members of the Bellmore Fire Department, in Nassau County, Long Island, NY, for their assistance and cooperation.

 

The unavoidable: Missouri firefighter shot and killed at a vehicle fire

The intent of this close call piece is to help us identify what clearly IS avoidable and what is not. When we have ANY information that a scene MAY be violent, we MUST STAGE away from the scene and await orders from the police.

Of course, our intent is to help people – when we have the right tools, equipment and conditions. When we have information that the scene may be a “bad” one, the POLICE tell us when it is safe – and no one else. Our instincts that “it may be safe” are nonsense. The scene is not until the police say it is. Unfortunately, some situations that occur to us are unavoidable.

One such case occurred in the early morning of July 21, 2008, when the Maplewood, MO, Fire Department (MFD) received a call for a vehicle fire in a residential neighborhood at 5:40 A.M. This was 22-year old Firefighter/Paramedic Ryan Hummert’s first fire call. Ryan began his career in August 2007 after graduating from paramedic training. He had just graduated from the St. Louis County Fire Academy in March.

The MFD responded, not unlike any of us would, to the reported truck on fire. What happened when the crew arrived was unimaginable – a psycho began shooting at the firefighters from a house window. The shooter had deliberately set the fire.

Firefighters arrived at the scene, saw the back of a pickup truck burning and stretched a line, having no idea that a gun was being aimed at them. Within moments of arrival, a bullet struck and immediately killed Ryan, Maplewood’s youngest firefighter, in the line of duty. No warning. Nothing other than the back of a pickup truck burning. “Shots fired. Firefighter killed in the line of duty.” Two police officers, Adam Fite and Sergeant Mike Martin, were shot and wounded. A crew of Maplewood firefighters and several police officers found themselves in the line of fire and risked their lives that day to save their colleagues and protect residents from a pathological sniper who ultimately took his own life. The members of the MFD will never forget the day that their newest firefighter/paramedic, the son of their former mayor, truly a “hometown” kid, was murdered on arrival at a truck fire.

In this case, there was absolutely no indication that a truck on fire would offer any risks to the firefighters or the police officers, other than the predictable roadway risk and the risks of a burning vehicle. As they responded that morning, they were doing what you and I would do – think about apparatus placement, blocking of the road, exposures and putting water on the fire. Nothing could have prepared them for the murder of one of their own.

About the MFD: The Maplewood Fire Department has 21 full-time members, consisting of the fire chief and three crews of six firefighters/EMTs each and a swingman. All members of the MFD are firefighter/EMTs or firefighter/paramedics. One member is a fire marshal and building inspector.

 

“Routine” search: Firefighters find a victim – with a gun aimed at them

On Saturday evening, Nov. 20, 2010, the West Babylon Fire Department (WBFD) in Suffolk County, Long Island, NY, was activated by the Babylon Central Fire & Rescue Alarm Center for a “Signal 13” general alarm, automatic fire alarm, at a single-family dwelling at 4th Street and 9th Avenue. First Assistant Chief Jim Campbell was first due, followed by Second Assistant Chief Pete McArdle. They reported nothing showing, and in fact discussed with each other that they had been there two weeks earlier when the homeowner was somewhat eccentric and would not allow access to investigate an alarm caused by the homeowner working on his oil burner.

At this call, Campbell established command while McArdle approached the front door to investigate. When McArdle attempted to ring front doorbell, he reported to command that he smelled smoke and that the window was hot. Third Assistant Chief Christine Manzi arrived on scene and immediately performed a 360-degree size-up at the request of command. Manzi reported to command and confirmed she had a fire within the residence, in the center of the home from exposure C.

First-due Engine 1-9-2 was directed to stretch primary and backup lines to the front door to meet McArdle. Second-due Engine 1-9-6 was directed to hit the hydrant to provide a positive water supply to Engine 1-9-2 and send manpower to the front door. Truck 1-9-15 was directed to stay on the avenue side of the structure and send search teams and a forcible-entry team to McArdle at the front door. Suffolk County police officers arrived on the scene and Campbell advised them there was a confirmed fire and forcible entry would occur. This run started as a very routine automatic alarm, but it was anything but routine.

The forcible-entry team opened front door and a primary line was advanced into the structure, to the left toward the fire. The search team entered the home and took a right-hand lead down a hallway toward the bedroom area of the home. Just as the attack line started to hit the fire, the search team entered one of the bedrooms. With the house on fire and smoke conditions existing, the occupant of the home was on a bed. He suddenly sat up and pointed a shotgun at the search team and told them to get out of his house. The search team immediately retreated, screaming a warning into the radio: “Gun!”

Outside, as the word “gun” suddenly went out over the radio, both search teams and the attack team rapidly retreated from the building. The scene was understandably frantic. Suddenly, the sound of breaking glass occurred, startling everyone staging away from the house. The occupant of the home was breaking the hallway window out with the butt of the shotgun.

Command issued an order for everyone to take cover behind apparatus, as the occupant jumped from the window clutching the shotgun. All fire service members scrambled and jumped through hedges to find safety behind the apparatus. Command immediately put all other responding units, mutual aid units and the rapid intervention team on a “Signal 9” (stand by) several blocks away and asked dispatch for a major Suffolk County Police Department (SCPD) emergency response forthwith, as responders were dealing with an emotionally disturbed person (EDP) with a weapon running around the scene.

SCPD responded in with approximately 10 patrol cars and Emergency Service Section units. Police officers ran toward the scene with weapons drawn. A chase ensued and command ordered all fire personnel to remain under cover until police had the threat under control. Several tense minutes later, gunshots were heard a block or two away. Dispatch advised command that SCPD reported the perpetrator was down and the police were requesting a fire department ambulance forthwith at 6th Street and 8th Avenue. Command sent ambulance 1-9-7 to that location, where the crew found the man who had moments earlier threatened firefighters with a gun now cuffed on the ground and suffering from several gunshot wounds. Ambulance 1-9-7 treated, packaged and transported the perpetrator to Good Samaritan Hospital, where he died from his injuries several days later.

Command then issued orders to McArdle to proceed with extinguishment and investigation activities with extreme caution, as it was known that the occupant was eccentric and obviously disturbed. The fear of possible booby-traps was on everyone’s mind. The attack team reentered the structure and extinguished the remaining fire. It was found that the occupant had set fire to the living room furniture with camping fuel. It was found that all of the doors in the home had padlocks installed on them, so it took an extensive amount of time to investigate safely with the fire department, fire marshal and SCPD.

The members of the search team were removed from the scene by Manzi and brought back to headquarters for counseling and a debriefing by SCPD investigators. The job was completed without physical injury to the members of the West Babylon Fire Department, but it reinforced the concept of always being proactive and taking nothing for granted, because even the most routine alarm can turn deadly within seconds.

About the WBFD: The West Babylon Fire Department is a volunteer organization providing fire and emergency medical services. In 2010, the department responded to more than 3,200 runs, with members responding out of three stations. The WBFD is on the south shore of Long Island, in western Suffolk County, a suburb of New York City. It consists of six fire companies, one rescue unit and one fire police squad. The members staff five engines, one ladder truck and a heavy rescue. In addition, EMS volunteers are an important part of the department and operate a fleet of three advanced life support (ALS) ambulances.

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Next month: On arrival at a reported single-vehicle accident, Bellmore, NY, Firefighter Justin Angell, responding as a part of an ambulance crew, was shot as he attempted to help a crash victim. With no warning, the victim began firing at firefighters after the victim/shooter crashed his pickup truck into a telephone pole.

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