Fire & EMS Response to Civil Unrest Events

August Vernon discusses your department’s preparedness when responding to acts of civil unrest.


If there was a report of a violent protest or civil unrest event in your community, how would you respond? Could you deal with numerous medical and fire calls during this type of event? Acts of civil unrest take place each year across the United States. Fire and EMS responders will...


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If there was a report of a violent protest or civil unrest event in your community, how would you respond? Could you deal with numerous medical and fire calls during this type of event?

Acts of civil unrest take place each year across the United States. Fire and EMS responders will encounter many challenges during their careers, some of which may include civil disorders, riots or protests. Annually, firefighters and paramedics have been injured during these situations. As our society becomes more complex and gives rise to many intricate problems, first responders must gain knowledge and understanding to solve these issues.

One recent event that highlights this concern for fire and EMS responders occurred in Toledo, OH, on Oct. 15. A crowd protesting a white supremacists’ march turned violent, as protesters threw baseball-size rocks at police, vandalized vehicles and stores, and set fire to a bar. At least 65 people were arrested and several police officers were injured before calm was restored several hours later. During the event, two paramedics were injured when their ambulance was pelted with rocks and bricks while they responded to a call.

Civil Disturbances

Civil unrest incidents can escalate for a variety of reasons and are not limited to urban areas. They can occur in several situations: peaceful demonstrations that turn confrontational, violence related to major sporting events, concerts and “block parties” that turn violent, political conventions that are disrupted because of activists, confrontations at “hot spots” such as abortion clinics and research laboratories, and riots related to racial tensions.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees people the right to peaceable assembly and to petition their government to address grievances. On occasion, that line is crossed and public safety becomes a concern. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) defines a civil disturbance as “An unlawful assembly that constitutes a breach of the peace or any assembly of persons where there is danger of collective violence, destruction of property or other unlawful acts.”

Does your department have guidelines or procedures for dealing with civil unrest? The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500 standard states in Section 6-7, Civil Unrest/Terrorism: “Fire department shall develop and maintain written guidelines that establish a standardized approach to the safety of members at incidents that involve violence, unrest or civil disturbances. Such situations shall include but not be limited to riots, fights, violent crimes, drug-related situations, family disturbances, deranged individuals, and people with fire department operations.”

In planning for civil unrest events it is important to review an example of disturbances that have occurred in the recent past and study the “lessons learned”:

  • Nov. 6, 2005, France – More than 1,400 vehicles were burned in over 270 communities as civil unrest spread throughout the country. Firefighters and EMS crews reportedly were attacked with bats, axes, rocks and bottles.

Civil unrest events also have occurred at or near college campuses when teams have won or lost critical games. For example, on Sept. 25, 2005 in Knoxville, TN, a crowd of 500 University of Tennessee students reportedly let a “rowdy party” celebrating a football team victory get out of hand, with people throwing debris out of windows and setting a small fire. Five people were arrested. In April 2003 in Durham, NH, an estimated 4,000 people rioted downtown after the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team lost a championship game. More than 80 people were arrested and firefighters were struck by beer bottles, full beer cans and rocks.

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