First responders might be heroes, but they’re not superheroes. They’re not bulletproof. They bleed when they get shot or punched. And like all other human beings, they shouldn’t have to be subjected to violence.
Unfortunately, violence against responders is becoming an all too common occurrence.
That’s why the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) joined forces with leading fire service organizations to develop training material to keep firefighters and responders safe and out of harm’s way during violent situations.
John Oates, chief of the East Hartford (Conn.) Fire Department, authored a report for the NFFF called, “Nine Questions You Should Ask.” The NFFF officially released the report, recommendations and training material on Tuesday.
“This report is about Everywhere, USA,” said Oates during a press conference on Tuesday. “You never know where, or when you might find yourself in a violent situation.”
For example, what may look like a family barbecue could be an illegal fire with 100 burly drunk guys hanging around looking for trouble, Oates said. Or it could be a medical emergency at a corner bar where things got a little out of hand, and responders suddenly find themselves in the middle of a potentially dangerous situation.
As responders are trained to do at every scene, Oates recommends a quick size-up of any situation to get a feel for the potential for violence. That size-up should begin with information from the dispatchers, or law enforcement agencies already on the scene or responding, he said.
“It’s all about intelligence gathering,” Oates said. “We need to learn more about the situation before we decide to proceed.”
Oates said it’s always best to walk away from scenes that are dangerous or appear to be so.
“It’s OK to disengage,” Oates said, adding that he hopes officers will teach their responders that lesson as well, and develop a culture where that is acceptable. Responders go to emergencies to help, not to get beat up or shot, Oates said.
He added that it’s also important to look the part of a rescuer and someone there to help, not to enforce law, which could draw hostilities.
“What do you look like?” Oates asked. “Do you look like a law enforcement officer? Do you have a badge? Simple things like that. Maybe you need a billboard on your back saying you’re the fire department.”
When developing the report, Oates said he looked for a handful of things that every responding agent can do easily to help protect themselves from injury and death, hence the nine points.
They are as follows:
Nine Questions You Should Ask
1. Do you use risk/benefit analysis for every call?
2. Do you have an effective relationship at all levels with the law enforcement agencies in your community?
3. How good is the information you get from your dispatcher?
4. Do you allow members to “first respond” directly to the scene?
5. Does your law enforcement agency use an incident management system?
6. When responding to a potentially violent incident, do you seek out a law enforcement officer when you arrive?
7. Have you told your fire officers/personnel that it is OK to leave the scene if things start to turn bad?
8. Is there a point where you don’t respond or limit your response to violent incidents?
9. Is your uniform easily mistaken for law enforcement?
The “Nine Questions” list was developed as NFFF’s Firefighter Life Safety Initiative 12 which states: “National protocols for response to violent incidents should be developed and championed.” The NFFF has a total of 16 firefighter life safety initiatives which are part of its Courage to Be Safe program.
That initiative came out of the 2004 and 2007 Firefighter Life Safety Summits where fire service and responder representatives decided to develop response protocols for violent incidents.
There were 22 participating agencies, among them were the International Association of Fire Fighters, International Association of Arson Investigators, International Association of Fire Chiefs, National Association of Police Organizations, and the National Sheriff’s Association. Also participating were the Congressional Fire Services Institute, the National Fire Protection Association, and the National Volunteer Fire Council.
There were also several career and volunteer fire departments participating in the summit and providing information for the initiative.
The final report of the Firefighter Life Safety Initiative 12 was compiled and written by Jerry Naylis, a 39-year veteran of the fire service who is currently the deputy fire chief of the Bergenfield (N.J.) Fire Department.
The final, 23-page report enumerates the problem of violence against responders, how the NFFF and partners decided to address the problem, and details some recommendations to keep firefighters safe.
“The initiative included major fire service associations, large, medium and small fire departments as well as career and volunteer companies, fire officers and firefighters,” Naylis said.
Also coming out of the initiative was the need for ongoing training to develop “situational awareness” of when they might be in danger, Naylis said.
“Things happen too often, from medics being assaulted by their patients, to deranged gunmen shooting at firefighters,” he said.
While the shooting of firefighters is in recent memory, with two Webster, N.Y. firefighters killed responding to a fire on Christmas Eve, Initiative 12 and the nine points initiative was in the making long before that tragic event.
In fact, NFFF Ronald Siarnicki executive director pointed out, the release of the final report was delayed to pay respect to the fallen fighters and to allow the Webster Fire Department to see it and react.
“We got some good, positive comments from the [Webster] chief,” Siarnicki said.
While some incidents are mentioned by name in the report, Siarnicki said it was not an attempt to “second guess” or analyze any particular response.
For Naylis, the biggest take away from the report and the initiative is the need to disengage when necessary.
Firefighters need to be able to change strategies when confronted with violent situations, Naylis said.
“It’s like when you decide to go defensive on a fire,” Naylis said. “You don’t want to be in an offensive mode when you should be in a defensive mode.”
Oates recommended responders do a “quick and dirty” after-action review just to determine what went well and what went wrong.
Also, Oates said, responders will need some high quality mental health care after witnessing the horrors of violence at scenes. After witnessing life and death situations involving fellow responders, debriefings should be required as well as long-term care when needed.
Siarnicki said the NFFF has been working on Initiative 13, which calls for counseling and psychological support and a report and training material.
It’s expected to be released in March.