Fire & EMS Response to Civil Unrest Events

Dec. 1, 2005
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 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.
Oct. 30, 2005, Madison, WI – Police used repeated bursts of pepper spray to break up a crowd of Halloween celebrants, part of a weekend of revelry in which more than 400 people were arrested. June 16, 2003, Benton Harbor, MI – Firefighters were pelted by rocks and bottles as they responded to dozens of structure and vehicle arson fires during a riot. Three firefighters were injured and two apparatus were damaged. April 2001, Cincinnati, OH – Several fire stations and fire apparatus were damaged as escalating racial tensions led to several days of violence. The result was scores of injuries, numerous vehicle, trash and structure arson fires, widespread damage, and 800 arrests for looting and rioting.

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.

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.
Develop integrated emergency communication systems that include the ability to directly relay real-time information between the caller, dispatch, and all responding emergency personnel. Provide body armor or bullet-resistant personal protective equipment; train with it and consistently enforce its use when responding to potentially violent situations. Ensure all emergency response personnel have the capability for continuous radio contact and consider providing portable communication equipment that has integrated hands-free capabilities. Consider requiring emergency dispatch centers to incorporate the ability to archive location, or individual, historical data and provide pertinent information to responding fire and emergency medical services personnel. Develop coordinated response guidelines for violent situations and hold joint training sessions with law enforcement, mutual aid and emergency response departments.

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.

  • For large-scale or multi-day civil unrest, a secured multi-agency emergency operations center (EOC) should be activated.
  • Expect a large media response.
  • Establish task forces or strike teams when possible.
  • Arrange extra staffing and staging of equipment and personnel.
  • Implement mutual aid agreements.
  • Fire personnel should wear full personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times on-scene and responding to and from events. EMS personnel should wear helmets and clearly marked EMS jackets. If there is any doubt that a responder is identified as a firefighter or EMS responder, wear a road vest or T-shirt with highly visible lettering.
  • Provide body armor for those responding into the “impact” area.
  • Remove equipment such as axes, hooks and poles from the outside of apparatus.
  • Placing duct tape in the windows of emergency response vehicles in the shape of an X may keep glass from shattering and striking responders.
  • Always operate with a buddy.
  • Never leave the pump panel operator alone.
  • No aerial company operations.
  • No laddering of structures or personnel on roof (life safety and rescue only).
  • No interior firefighting (life safety/rescue only).
  • Short hoselays, rapid attacks and quick “take-ups.”
  • No overhauling and employ “hit-and-run” firefighting tactics.
  • Use deck guns when possible.
  • Be prepared to leave vehicle and trash fires unattended if the situation warrants.
  • It may be necessary to abandon a scene quickly.
  • Be prepared to provide decontamination for multiple individuals exposed to law enforcement chemical agents.
  • EMS may need to implement disaster procedures such as triage tags, casualty collection points and field treatment areas for minor injuries.
  • Use of tactical medics in supporting law enforcement operations is encouraged.
  • Always use escorts by law enforcement personnel.


For public safety agencies and special operations teams that are involved in planning and training for civil unrest and protest incidents, it is critical that Operations Security (OPSEC) be utilized in planning and trainings. Extremists and organized criminals can take weeks and months to select their targets and plan their operations. To be successful, they need specific information about personnel, response plans, capabilities, and infrastructures. OPSEC is a five-step risk-management process used by military and security professionals to protect sensitive information that adversaries could use.

“OPSEC for Public Safety” is a new course being offered by the Interagency OPSEC Support Staff for first responders and public safety agencies. The workshop provides practical examples of using OPSEC in the public safety world. Participants will also learn how terrorists collect intelligence and plan their operations, how to identify areas vulnerable to an attack and countermeasures that can protect information that needs to be secure.

For additional information, access


Most emergency responders will not have to deal with civil unrest events, but every community should have a plan in place to address them. The more public safety agencies prepare for such incidents, the better they can respond to effectively manage any situation that may arise. The community has entrusted us with its safety, so let’s prepare now.

August Vernon is the assistant coordinator with the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, NC, Office of Emergency Management. He recently returned from a year in Iraq as a security contractor. Vernon is also an adjunct instructor for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s OPSEC for Public Safety program. He has been involved in emergency management since 2000 and a member of the fire service since 1990. Vernon served in the U.S. Army as an NBC (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical) Operations Specialist. Vernon is involved in teaching terrorism/WMD related subjects and can be reached reference for questions or comments at [email protected].

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