The tragic shooting and death of a young firefighter/paramedic from Maplewood, MO, just outside St. Louis, in July was a sobering reminder that firefighters can also be the victims of violent crime in the performance of their duties. Unfortunately, I have heard it too many times: "It was a routine call."
In this case, Ryan Hummert, only 22 years old and with less than a year on the job with the Maplewood Fire Department, responded with the other three firefighters on his company to what was supposed to be a "routine" pickup truck fire. Little did the four firefighters know what awaited them when they arrived. They did find a pickup truck burning, but there was more than they expected. Hummert was the first to exit the engine and as soon as he was handed a nozzle, he was fatally shot in the head by a sniper with a high-powered rifle. The sniper apparently was hiding in a second-floor room in a home across the street.
When Hummert went down, the other firefighters thought perhaps he had been struck by something flying off the pickup. When they realized it was gunfire, they ducked for cover and were pinned down for about 45 minutes, afraid to move. They were eventually rescued by a police armored vehicle while the suspect continued to fire. According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), Hummert has become the sixth firefighter in the country since 1990 to be shot to death while on a fire or EMS scene. No such statistics were kept by the USFA prior to 1990.
As firefighter/paramedics, we train for everything from learning to operate in toxic environments to recognizing and treating a myocardial infarction. However, you cannot train for the unseen and the unknown. Hummert and the other firefighters in Maplewood that early morning could not predict what awaited them when they arrived on the scene.
Unfortunately, our society is becoming more violent and the violence directed at firefighters is a reflection of our society. You never heard of school shootings in the past, but now they average one a year. You rarely heard of some of the other more bizarre events such as people going into their workplaces and shooting their co-workers, but it happens more and more. Firefighters are not immune to this increase in violence in our society.
In Chicago on June 28, Firefighter Donald Cox was shot and wounded as he responded to a house fire on the city's Southeast Side. Cox was an investigator, working alone in the area, when he was shot. The Chicago Fire Department has since changed its policy, requiring all investigators to now work in pairs.
In Lexington, KY, on Feb. 13, 2004, Lieutenant Brenda Cowan was shot to death and a second firefighter was wounded as they responded to a medical call involving a domestic disturbance. Cowan, 40, was a 12-year veteran and the first black woman to join the Lexington department.
On March 16, 2002, Fire Chief Steven Louis Jones of the Roswell, NM, Fire Department was shot in the head as he tried to talk to a burn victim near a burning home. Jones, 46, died 10 days later. Jones had not realized that the burn victim was the arsonist and had a gun.
On March 8, 2000, Lieutenant Javier Lerma, 41, and Private William Blakemore, 48, of the Memphis, TN, Fire Department were shot to death while responding to a residential fire that apparently had been set by another Memphis firefighter.
On Aug. 6, 1996, Firefighter John William Swan of the Lagro Township Volunteer Fire Department in Indiana was killed after he went to the scene of a crash between a motorcycle and car. The motorcyclist ran into a boat the car was towing. The car's driver shot the motorcyclist, two bystanders and Swan, who was 18.
All of the previously described scenarios were "routine calls." You cannot be a mind-reader and know the true intent of irrational people who are bent on destruction. None of the firefighters described in these scenarios would have imagined that they would become a line-of-duty death statistic at the hands of a gunman. They were always conscious of the other risks associated with the job and, I would venture to say, followed safety procedures that had been put in place by their departments.
Unfortunately, the only thing we can do to protect our personnel is to put safety procedures in place to prevent the loss of innocent firefighters. Staging areas for fire personnel are an essential component of any response to the scene of a violent crime. This includes not only shootings, but stabbings, psychiatric calls and even assaults on one person by another. All of these calls are indicators for scenes being secured by the police prior to firefighters going into possibly dangerous scenes.
The tragic death of Firefighter/Paramedic Hummert could not have been prevented. A madman with a gun bent on destruction is hard to stop, especially when you do not know it is coming. Hopefully, we will see no more.
GARY LUDWIG, MS, EMT-P, a FirehouseÂ® contributing editor, is a deputy fire chief with the Memphis, TN, Fire Department. He has 30 years of fire-rescue service experience. Ludwig is chairman of the EMS Section for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), has a master's degree in business and management, and is a licensed paramedic. He is a frequent speaker at EMS and fire conferences nationally and internationally, and can be reached through his website at www.garyludwig.com.