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It's no secret that a tremendous amount of pre-hospital medical care is being provided by fire departments. Many EMS calls involve acts of violence such as assaults, stabbings and shootings that occur in incidents ranging from gang fighting to domestic disputes.
Emergency responders are finding themselves performing their duties in a much more dangerous setting on a more frequent basis than ever before. For example:
- An engine company in New York City was firebombed while investigating a gas leak.
- Fire companies operating during riots in Los Angeles were forced from structure fires, attacked with axes and shot.
- Washington, DC, firefighters aboard an ambulance were shot at while treating the victim of a shooting. One firefighter was injured.
Although these incidents occur-red in major metropolitan areas, they could have happened to firefighters anywhere at any time.
Photo by Glen E. Ellman
Firefighters and police transport victims from the scene of a multiple shooting at an apartment complex in Fort Worth, TX.
As our society changes, firefighters are forced into a new role. To many in the community we are just there to help. To others, however, we are part of a system that threatens them. Any time we respond to an incident, there is potential for us to be caught in the crossfire.
There are steps you can take before you respond to one of those dangerous situations. Develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) that address everything from information that needs to be obtained from callers to apparatus placement and use of bulletproof vests.
Re-evaluate uniforms. During a uniform up-grade to meet National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards for stationwear, one municipality found that police officers and firefighters were almost identical. Their uniforms were so alike that people were commonly asking firefighters to assist with police matters. In one incident, a burglar caught breaching the wall of an office next door to a fire station surrendered to a firefighter, believing him to be a police officer.
If your stationwear resembles the uniform of your local law enforcement agency, consider making some changes. Letting fire crews wear T-shirts with the department's name on the back in large letters, reflective vests or lightweight flame-retardant jackets like those worn in wildland firefighting will help to distinguish you from other agencies when responding to incidents with the potential for violence.
Anything members of a fire company can do to identify themselves as firefighters should help. Announcing that you are from the fire department or wearing your firefighting helmet will help people identify you. Never assume people know who you are.
Another area of concern is apparatus. The use of enclosed cabs has made fire crews much safer from bystanders throwing items at rigs. During the Los Angeles riots in 1992, the city fire department moved chief officers out of their sedans and into utility vehicles for added safety.
When dispatchers take information on a violent incident, they must ascertain what type of incident it is (assault, stabbing, shooting, etc.), the number of patients involved and, most important, whether the person or persons who committed the act are still on the scene.
Fire and police dispatchers must be in contact with one another so that new information can be provided to responding units. Fire companies should have information on police response times a fire company does not want to be first in at a gun battle in progress. In many metropolitan areas response times for police may be much longer than firefighters and EMS personnel are accustomed to. Some incidents may need to be secured by law enforcement before any patient assessment can begin.