Slaying the “Dragons”

Nov. 1, 2003
Anybody old enough to remember the 1960s will recall media coverage of anti-war and other protests in public places. In the 21st century, we still have civil unrest and protests, and demonstrators. One target has been meetings of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle, Quebec City, New York, Washington, D.C. and most recently in Cancun, Mexico. Demonstrators have taxed the resources of police and fire departments everywhere they went. In Miami, we are preparing for protests that are expected during this month's Free Trade of the Americas Agreement (FTAA) conference.
Photo Courtesy of Miami Fire-Rescue Firefighters train in the removal of a "bucket dragon," one of several locking devices used by political protesters.

In the 1960s, demonstrators adopted "passive resistance" techniques such as locking arms or holding hands and becoming limp to make it difficult for police officers to arrest and remove them. Then there were those who became more violent, throwing rocks, bottles and sometimes even Molotov cocktails at police and the National Guard.

Today's protesters have taken resistance to a new level by designing a locking device called the "sleeping dragon." The device is made of a three-foot piece of PVC or steel pipe wide enough for an arm to be inserted in each end. In the middle of the pipe is a pin or bolt that is fastened to each side. The protester inserts his or her arm in the opening with a chain wrapped around the arm. A mountain climber's carabiner is placed at the end of the chain, where the protester locks himself or herself into the pin. Although the protesters can release themselves at any time, they usually do not, so a police or fire department "cut team" must manually cut them loose to remove them from the premises.

Freeing the protesters takes a lot of time and manpower; that is exactly what they want. In fact, some have taken the "sleeping dragon" devices to a new level of difficulty by adding a layer of tar, chicken wire and duct tape, or sometimes even human feces. These are called "tar dragons." Or, protesters may place the pipe sleeve in a five-gallon bucket of concrete, called a "bucket dragon," and encase the sleeve in a 55-gallon drum of concrete, called a "drum dragon."

Whatever the device used, it will take a well-trained cut team 45 minutes to two hours to get to the pin so it can be cut. Even then, a team must have an arsenal of cutting equipment.

In extreme cases, protesters use long 2X4 pieces of lumber to erect a tripod. Suspended from the tripod is a demonstrator who appears to have a hangman's noose around his neck, and threatens to hang himself if any effort is made to remove him. Although this is usually a ruse, the intention is to make it appear as though we are trying to kill him, giving the group exactly what it wants - publicity and bad press for the police and fire departments.

To effectively mitigate these devices, a well-trained and informed police and fire team must be ready before the event begins. I recently attended two classes on this subject, where we studied the command process in civil unrest and then the actual mitigation of demonstrations using the various "dragons." The classes were sponsored by the U.S. Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP). Community Research Associates, contracted by ODP, conducted the classes for firefighters and police officers.

In the hands-on training, we worked with "dragons" and cut them loose in a systematic, planned manner. It was an enlightening experience. It was also an exhaustive process as well. Well-trained teams are vital to effectively deal with these problems. Legal issues were discussed, as was the use of deadly force, riot-control agents and less-lethal weapons by police.

What is surprising is how quickly these devices can be put into action. We watched a video taken by a surveillance camera in San Francisco that showed five protesters in a flatbed truck pulling up in front of a department store. The protesters were dressed like municipal workers in coveralls, hard hats and safety vests. In just 10 minutes, they unloaded four 55-gallon "dragons," uprighted them and locked themselves in.

We were taught that sometimes the prudent thing to do is to place yellow tape around these individuals to reroute traffic, then ignore them. They want publicity, media and crowd coverage. Denying them these things decreases their perceived effectiveness. Staying cool, calm and collected is exactly what they do not want us to do. If the protesters become violent, however, that is another story. Even then, such responses have been challenged in California courts on several occasions and the responders lost because of perceived violations of the protesters' First Amendment rights.

As I've noted, fire and police officials in Miami are working together to prepare for this month's FTAA conference. Specialized equipment has been purchased, and training is taking place. In fact, the entire fire department is being trained in explosives, riot control and "dragon"-cutting techniques.

The key to this type of situation, like all others in public safety, is training and cooperation. If we work together, all "dragons" can be slain, or at least tamed.

Removal Procedures for "Dragon" Devices

Recent political protests have presented a new challenge for the San Francisco Fire Department. Specifically, one challenge is the safe and efficient removal of pipe sleeve securing devices, or "sleeping dragon" devices, utilized by protesters. These devices enable protesters to fasten themselves together in order to form a human chain for the purpose of obstructing street traffic and building entrances, preventing their expedient removal by law enforcement. The following information was gathered with the assistance of Rescue Squad 2 and the Bureau of Equipment.

The pipe sleeve securing device is comprised of a piece of plastic drainage pipe approximate three feet long and four inches diameter that is over-laid with a one foot-by-four-inch piece of electrical steel conduit. In the middle of the device is a half-inch piece of rebar that is placed through the center of the doubled pipe sleeve and welded to both sides of the electrical conduit. The rebar is used to secure a carabiner and chain assembly that is wrapped around each protester's wrist and locked onto the half-inch rebar, making them and the pipe sleeve securing device a unit. The device may be wrapped with chicken wire with duct tape on the exterior. The device may also have two 45-degree drainage pipe fittings on the ends which cover each protester's elbow. The duct tape and wire are intended to slow the removal process.

Equipment and materials needed for removal include a utility knife, wire cutters, two water extinguishers, two plastic blankets, material blankets, salvage or roof cover (for spark protection), two 4X4 wooden blocks (minimum size, to elevate sleeve device and protester's elbow off the ground) and a multipurpose saw with a metal cutting blade.

Removal procedures are as follows:

  • Firefighters to wear full protective personal equipment.
  • Have protesters with the pipe sleeve securing device lie on the ground.
  • Place wooden blocks under the device and forearm.
  • Cut and remove any duct tape and wire that are over the steel conduit only.
  • Place the nozzle of the extinguisher into one end of the pipe sleeve device for heat protection, and discharge judiciously during the cutting operation.
  • Cover both protesters with a blanket and prepare the second extinguisher for spark protection as needed.
  • Use the saw to create two two-inch cuts approximately three inches apart directly above the installed rebar. The cuts are perpendicular to the length of the steel conduit.
  • Next, create a three-inch cut lengthwise joining the two two-inch cuts, followed by a partial cut (score) of the corresponding side opposite the three-inch cut.
  • Use a screwdriver to pry the fully cut three-inch side upward and begin working the partially-attached piece of steel conduit back and forth until it breaks off. Once detached, you are able to access the carabiners on the inside of the device, disengage them from the rebar, and remove the device from the protesters. The device should be turned over to law enforcement.

Also discovered in recent protests have been multiple pipe-sleeved protesters who have had their securing device imbedded in concrete by using a small plastic garbage can as a mold. Four protesters joined in two devices are bonded together within the concrete-filled garbage can shaped bollard.

At an initial size-up, it appears to be a formidable and time-consuming task to dismantle the concrete bollard before removal of the devices can be initiated. However, the concrete bollard is typically filled with lightweight rubble and paper products which can be quickly broken apart with a hammer or similar tool chipping the material away from the outside perimeter toward the center.

Note: Be advised that protesters secured within the device have the ability to disengage the carabiner on the interior of the device at any time and thus release themselves. With this in mind, a protester who appears to be uncomfortable with the cutting process may be convinced to disengage voluntarily. Of utmost importance is that the cuts made to the device are not made too deeply, which could result in injury to the protester.

Barry Wong is a lieutenant with the San Francisco Fire Department, assigned to the Public Information Office.

Chief Michael J. Essex is special operations officer for the Emergency Response Division of City of Miami Fire-Rescue. The division includes the technical rescue, hazardous materials and dive rescue teams. Essex also is the department's SWAT-Medic commander.

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