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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Does your jurisdiction host large or controversial political conventions, conferences or demonstrations? Past experience at such events such as the Free Trade Areas of the Americas, Republican National Convention, Democratic National Convention, G8 Summit, and World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund (IMF) meetings have shown the need for pre-planning and inter-agency communication.

Firefighter Safety

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducts investigations of firefighter line-of-duty deaths to formulate recommendations for preventing future deaths and injuries. NIOSH makes the following recommendations for fire departments responding to scenes of violence:

  • Develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) for responding to potentially violent situations.

Planning Ahead

It is important that fire-EMS agencies meet with local law enforcement to develop agreements concerning police support during critical events prior to any incidents. Any civil unrest event has the potential to result in a large increase in fire and medical calls. Law enforcement, fire and EMS agencies share the same priorities during a critical incident. Planning and inter-agency cooperation for any event should be paramount.

Several issues need to be addressed. Law enforcement will need fire and EMS coverage and must provide security for fire and EMS units entering the “exclusion area” or “hot zone.” There will be a tremendous need for a coordinated effort among all agencies to ensure a safe and effective response.

Tactical medics are an asset to any agency. They are trained in multiple subjects such as law enforcement operations, firearms use and safe handling, remote site medical care, preventive medicine, tactics and ballistic injuries. It is important that every jurisdiction have a trained and equipped tactical medic team at its disposal. One resource for additional information on tactical medicine and tactical medic training is

Lessons Learned

Experience with past civil unrest events has shown:

  • Pre-planning is critical.
  • Immediate interagency cooperation and a unified command structure are essential.
  • Clear communications are necessary for effective operations.
  • Access to helicopters for overhead assessments is a plus.
  • Move or empty trash dumpsters since they are easy targets of arson.
  • Extinguish fires immediately if possible because they become a method of gathering large groups of individuals to one area.
  • Secure construction sites since they contain rocks, bricks, concrete, barrels and other items that demonstrators can use.
  • Protesters may fill barrels with water or cement and use them to block roads or roll down hills toward responders.
  • Alcohol is a significant contributor to violence. At sporting events and concerts, alcohol consumption has escalated violence and increased the number of injured persons.
  • Protesters may use such tactics as safe houses, surveillance and radio communications.
  • “Super soaker” squirt guns may be used to spray ammonia, gasoline and other chemicals on responders.
  • Molotov cocktails are a serious danger and need to be planned for.
  • Protesters may throw rocks, bricks, bottles, cans and fireworks at responders, or use slingshots or wrist rockets to shoot BBs, marbles, lug nuts and other similar items.
  • A human chain is accomplished through the interlocking of arms, legs, and bodies and is used to quickly block streets and intersections.
  • Protesters may use “locking devices” consisting of steel and plastic PVC pipes to lock arms. Also, buckets, bicycle locks, drums and other devices are used to anchor individuals to each other or to fixed objects.
  • Protesters may place suspicious packages and call in bomb threats.
  • During civil unrest events, related and unrelated 911 call volume will increase.
  • Fire and EMS personnel may become targets of violence.

Response Guidelines

Please follow local guidelines and procedures. This article is for informational purposes only.