Close Calls: Firefighters Become Targets of Gunshot Violence

Dec. 5, 2014

In this two-part column, we have looked at the differences between when we know at the time of the run that there is the potential for violence and when we do not know. We looked at the working vehicle fire in Maplewood, MO, where Firefighter Ryan Hummert was unpredictably shot and killed instantly. We looked at the working house fire in West Babylon, NY, where firefighters conducting a search found a victim aiming a gun at them – again, no warning at all. The members of the West Babylon Fire Department who responded to a house fire expected the usual hazards, but not this highly unusual hazard and risk that was essentially unpredictable.

Hundreds of miles from Maplewood, but just a few minutes’ drive from West Babylon is the community of Bellmore, just across the county line in Nassau County, Long Island. Responding to a vehicle accident, members of the Bellmore Fire Department were met by a victim who turned out to be a gunman – shooting at them and resulting in a firefighter down.

Again, our sincere thanks to Chief Terry Merrell and the officers and members of the Maplewood Fire Department for sharing the facts in memory of Firefighter Paramedic Ryan Hummert as well as Chief of Department John Randazzo, First Assistant Chief James A. Campbell Jr., and the officers and members of the West Babylon Fire Department for their assistance. This month, we sincerely thank Chief Robert Taylor, Firefighter/EMT Justin Angell and the officers and members of the Bellmore Fire Department for their assistance and cooperation in this month’s column.

The Bellmore Fire Department is a volunteer fire-rescue service protecting 3.5 square miles with approximately 100 members responding out of three stations with four pumpers, one tower ladder, one heavy rescue, three advanced life support (ALS) ambulances, and additional special and support apparatus.

This account is by Bellmore Fire Department Firefighter/EMT Peter L. Pagones, part of the ambulance crew when the shots were fired:

On 3/1/11 Firefighter/EMTs Justin and Dean Angell and I were in the recreation room at Bellmore Fire headquarters because our monthly company meeting had ended a short while earlier. At approximately 10 P.M., a rescue call was dispatched for an MVA (motor vehicle accident) in which we later learned a pickup truck had struck a telephone pole at the intersection of Merrick Road and Bellmore Avenue. Since the three of us were at headquarters, we were in the ambulance responding to the call immediately and notifying communications. We turned out within 90 seconds.

Dean was the chauffeur (driver) and Justin was the EMT-C and senior EMS crew member, so he sat in the officer’s seat. I was in the rear of the ambulance, checking and making ready the equipment to be used at the scene. Within three minutes, we were approaching the MVA intersection location we were advised by communications that the MVA was not at this location, but rather a few blocks farther south on Bellmore Avenue near the intersection with Claxton Avenue. As we responded south on Bellmore Avenue, Dean and Justin first observed the vehicle near the yellow road divider line facing north in the northbound travel lane near Claxton Avenue. Dean slowed the ambulance and as it neared the pickup truck, he brought the ambulance to a stop alongside the curb in the southbound lane of Bellmore Avenue. Once the ambulance came to that stop, Justin exited the ambulance from the front passenger door to speak to a woman who may have been a witness to the MVA. Once Justin exited the ambulance and closed the door, Dean continued to drive toward the pickup truck. At that point, we heard a series of “bang-bang”-sounding noises.

After hearing these sounds, Dean observed a green light coming from the front of the pickup truck. Dean identified this light as a laser light associated with a rifle laser site and the “bang bangs” as gunfire. Dean immediately crouched low behind the steering wheel and started to back up the ambulance out of this zone of danger as he notified communications that “someone is shooting at us.”

As we proceeded to back up on Bellmore Avenue, we heard the communications notification of shots being fired and for all vehicles to leave the immediate vicinity. While backing up, we saw Chief Taylor, the first-responding chief, who was in front of us, who had stopped his vehicle near the pickup truck. Dean then stopped backing up and we started driving toward the pickup truck. When we reached the corner of Marion Street and Bellmore Avenue, we saw someone lying on the ground on the corner. Dean immediately yelled out that it was Justin lying on the ground. He stopped the ambulance between the pickup truck and where Justin was lying on the ground to protect against anyone else being shot.

Dean exited the ambulance and ran around the front of the ambulance to where Justin was lying on the ground while I exited the side passenger door. Bellmore Fire Department member Matt Podolski, who lived nearby, was standing at the corner. I saw Justin lying on his stomach and a dark-colored liquid covering the lower portion of his blue rescue vest. The three of us lifted Justin up by his shoulders, carried him into the ambulance through the side door and placed him face down on the gurney.

As we were placing Justin in the ambulance, I could the sound of another series of bullets being fired over our heads. Once Justin was in the ambulance, Dean jumped back into the driver’s seat and proceeded with lights and sirens to Nassau University Medical Center (NUMC), a Level 1 trauma center. While enroute, Paul Zuckerberg, our EMS captain, contacted Med Com (medical control) and requested the trauma team be ready for our arrival.

During the initial assessment, I confirmed that Justin was conscious with positive airway breathing and circulation. Matt and I removed Justin’s clothing and determined that he was bleeding from his lower back. While applying a pressure dressing to stop the bleeding, I observed a small piece of metal that appeared to a bullet fragment. I instantly placed the fragment in a secure location and continued to apply pressure and after a short time, the wound stopped bleeding.

Just about the time rapid physical examination was completed, we arrived at NUMC. Justin was taken from the ambulance to a trauma room in the ER, where a full trauma team was waiting to treat him. As I exited the ambulance with the gurney, I placed the metal fragment in a piece of tissue and placed it in my pocket. I did this to ensure that once I gave it to the Nassau County Police Department, there would be no issue raised regarding the legal “chain of custody” during any subsequent criminal proceeding. Obviously, at that time, I was not aware that the driver of the pickup truck had been killed during a shootout with police.

We entered the ER and went directly to the assigned trauma room. We assisted the trauma team in moving Justin onto a stretcher bed, at which time my treatment of Justin as my patient was transferred to the trauma team. We took the trundle back to the ambulance, but were advised by police officers that the ambulance was to be locked and the trundle was not to be moved from beside the ambulance nor, which I found somewhat disconcerting, could we clean the blood from the trundle mattress, since both were considered part of the crime scene.

I returned to the ER and while waiting with other department members for news about Justin, I was approached by two detectives and asked to give a statement. While talking to the detectives, I learned that the shooter had been killed by police. Justin was transferred to a room in ICU and at approximately 1 A.M. I was able to see and speak with him. After seeing that he was in stable condition and in an excellent frame of mind, I caught a ride back to Bellmore fire headquarters and saw many of the department members who did not go or had returned from NUMC. The next day, the department had counselors on site to talk to members about what happened. I along with other members of the department attended one of these sessions.

This account is by Bellmore Fire Department Firefighter/EMT Dean Angell, who was driving the ambulance when the shots were fired:

That night, I was at the firehouse for a company meeting. A few of us were hanging out talking after the meeting when the lights flickered in the firehouse. A few minutes later, we got a call for an MVA with a car into a pole. We split the crews and I decided to drive the ambulance with my brother Justin in the front with me and Pete (Pagones) in the back. We rolled right out the door.

The first location they gave us had no accident, but looking farther down the road we saw a vehicle in the roadway and no power down that stretch of road. Justin radioed the dispatcher that we actually have the accident at Bellmore Avenue and Claxton Avenue and that we were on scene. A female was in the roadway flagging us down and I pulled the ambulance up almost nose to nose with the pickup truck that hit a pole. The pole that was hit was a few houses behind the pickup truck. Justin got out to speak with the female who we thought might be a witness. I was opening the driver’s-side door to get out of the ambulance when I heard a loud bang. The first thing I did was look up at the pole I parked next to, thinking it was a transformer exploding above the ambulance.

The ambulance was fine and the next thing that happened was a green laser going past my eyes. I looked straight ahead and saw someone leaning out of the pickup truck’s driver’s-side window involved in the accident, shooting a long black rifle with a green laser multiple times. I said to myself this can’t be happening.

I looked over and Justin was gone. I yelled back to Pete to get down, there’s a gun. I threw the ambulance into reverse and got under the steering wheel, put on the sirens and grabbed the radio. Now I was going reverse blind and trying to let the dispatcher and units responding know what was going on. I was transmitting that someone was shooting at us and trying to tell the dispatcher who and where we were. When I felt I was far away enough, I got up from the steering wheel and grabbed the PA and said Justin, where are you? I was at least six or eight houses down from the pickup truck.

I saw Chief Taylor driving past me. He got on the radio and said there was a shooting victim here. I then drove forward, thinking of how I was going to put the ambulance on an angle between the shooter and the injured so nobody else would be hit. As I pulled up, I looked out the driver side window and saw it was Justin who was down. I couldn’t put the ambulance into park fast enough to jump out to him.

I saw a ton of blood all over his back and he was on all fours. I asked him where he was hit and whether he could feel his legs. He said he could feel his legs and at this point Chief Taylor said let’s get him out of here. Chief Taylor, Pete, Matt and I picked him up and went through the side door of the ambulance. I said put pressure on his back and I ran back to the driver’s seat and took off as fast as I could. Driving to the hospital was unreal. By now, every police car was flying past me going the opposite way and all I could think of was if Justin was going to be OK. I must have screamed it to the back a bunch of times, what’s his status? We got up there really quick with (First Assistant) Chief (Daniel) Holl following behind. When we got there, I went to the back doors and we pulled him out. On the way to the trauma room I kept reassuring Justin everything was going to be OK and that I was going to be with him the whole time.

This account provided by Bellmore FD FF/EMT-CC Justin Angell, who was shot upon sizing-up the MVA scene:

After a 10-hour workday, I went down to the firehouse to go to my fire company’s monthly meeting. The meeting started around 8:30-ish and I wasn’t planning on staying after that since I had to be back into work at midnight. After the hour-long meeting, I went downstairs and ran into some of my friends and my brother, who were in the TV room, so I decided to hang out for a little while.

As we were all talking, the lights in the firehouse flickered and the TV shut off. One of the first things I had said as a joke was, “Here comes the call for a crash into a pole,” and like clockwork, two minutes later, our pagers went off for an auto accident, car into a telephone pole with a transformer down at the intersection of Bellmore Avenue and Merrick Road.

Being that there were eight or nine of us in the firehouse, we decided to have three of us respond on the ambulance and the balance to go onto the heavy rescue truck. Being that I was the only ALS (advanced life support) provider there, I had no problem going onto the ambulance and my brother Dean told me he would drive. One of our newer EMTs, Pete (Pagones), also went on the ambulance. On our way to the call, the things that were going through my head, my pre-arrival size-up, included thinking about people possibly being pinned – if the transformer was down, were live wires on the ground next to the car? Standard “pre-arrival size-up” thoughts.

As we pulled up to the intersection, there were no signs of a crash anywhere. My brother informed me he could see what seemed like a car or truck in the middle of the road a bit more south on Bellmore Avenue. As we went south, I could see what seemed to be an SUV or a pickup truck with heavy damage to the front in the middle of the road and we realized that all the power was out and the street was pitch black. The next thing I did just before we stopped was notify the dispatcher of the newly found location of the MVA.

As we were pulling up, we noticed a bystander to the west of us on the side of the road waving us down, so I told my brother to pull up next to her, which was approximately 25 yards from the pickup truck. We used caution as there were probable wires down by the crash and we didn’t know if they were live. I opened the door of the ambulance and got out, asking the bystander if she witnessed the accident. As she was answering me, I took two steps away from the ambulance in the direction of the crash. The next thing I heard was what sounded like an explosion – an explosion so loud that it felt like it happened right next to me.

Before I could fully register the noise and think of what it was, I felt extreme pain to my left lower side near my hip, but with the pain also came a jolt of force. With the momentum from the jolt, I had begun to run for my safety and headed away from the pickup truck. As I was running, I began to feel pain in my back and realized I was definitely hurt. But in real time, as I was running and thinking of the pain, I could see what looked like to me a green laser pointer on the houses to the left, which I was running parallel with, and also hearing additional loud explosion noises. Also to my right I saw the ambulance still with its lights on, going in reverse northbound on Bellmore Avenue hitting the siren and air horns in what looked like a scramble to get away from the scene.

This run felt like forever and in my mind, after I registered the pain, I right away thought that the transformer had exploded, shooting scrap metal out and clipping me in my side. As I got to the next block north, there was an auto stopped on the corner and I immediately went over to the trunk and leaned on it to help with the pain and try to find out what was going on. The driver of the auto got out and to my surprise it was a familiar face. The driver, Matt (Podolski), is also a member of the Bellmore Fire Department and was responding in his personal vehicle to the firehouse for the run, but had turned around when he saw the ambulance rapidly coming at him in reverse. He told me he was trying to get away from the scene after he saw the ambulance in reverse and heard the radio transmission, but he stopped on the corner when he saw me running. I told him it felt like I got hit with something on my left side and that my back really hurt. Matt then looked at my back and told me to go over to the front lawn of the house we were on the corner of and to get down. I collapsed on all fours on the lawn of the house. Blood was running down my back and all I could hear was that bystander who saw everything screaming, “He shot him! He shot him!”

Reality started to set in that those loud noises and the pain I was feeling came from a gun. Chief Taylor had then showed up and Matt started screaming to him to get the ambulance over here as I had been shot. The ambulance pulled up and Pete and my brother picked me up and put me inside the ambulance onto the stretcher. My brother jumped into the driver’s seat and Chief Taylor shut the door and we began to drive to the hospital. Matt had also gotten into the back of the ambulance to help assist Pete. The ride felt like an hour and I was nervous thinking I was going to need surgery and not knowing had badly my injuries actual were, but I never lost consciousness and I remember the entire ride.

When we arrived at NUMC, I was rushed straight into the trauma room and was surrounded by doctors. They began to ask what had happened and my brother gave them a brief rundown. After two IVs and being asked numerous questions, I was brought over to CT scan to see the full extent of the damage. Three minutes later, one of the doctors came up to me, asked my name and told me I’m one of the luckiest people he had ever met. When I asked why, he then told me that the results from the CT scan showed that the bullet entered near my left hip and exited my lower back, never hitting any major organs, only going through muscle and fat, and that the exit wound was an inch and a half from my spine. So not only was there no need for surgery, but I also had no major internal injuries. This was a big relief for me, but I was still very nervous and couldn’t believe that on a normal call this had happened where I was trying my best to take scene-safety procedures!

The doctor told me I was going to spend one night in the ICU just for observation and the next thing I knew I was wheeled up to the ICU. I ended up spending two nights in the ICU for observation and on Thursday March 3, 2011, at around noon, I was released from the hospital and was finally able to return home.

After my stay in the hospital, it took just about three months to fully recover and for the wound to heal up. For the first month and a half, I had a nurse coming to my house every day to redress the wound and to make sure I was healing properly. Being 20 years old, those three months felt like three years, but I’m grateful that it only took three months – I didn’t even have to go to physical therapy. I tried to keep as busy as possible.

In mid-May, I was cleared by my doctor to return to work and to return to the firehouse. June 1 was my first official day back to the firehouse and I never felt better having no physical restrictions. I love being a Bellmore volunteer firefighter and EMT-CC and am thankful to be back. It has been a long experience, but I’m glad to say I’m alive and feeling better than ever with absolutely no regrets joining the BFD.

This account provided by Bellmore Firefighter/EMT Matthew Podolski, who was responding to the firehouse when he came upon the scene:

I was at home watching a movie when the radio tones came over with a report of a car into a pole and a transformer down. I put on a pair of sneakers, ran to my car and started to drive toward the firehouse. I got to the corner of Marion Street and Bellmore Avenue as the ambulance drove past. I then followed behind. The ambulance pulled up to the car accident. I attempted to go slowly around the ambulance so I could continue to respond to my station. I heard a series of loud bangs.

Thinking it was the transformer exploding, I put my car in reverse to get away from the explosion. I then heard another series of loud bangs and Dean Angell on the radio advising of shorts fired and that the ambulance was being shot at. My car was blocked in by an SUV that was driving down Bellmore Avenue behind me. The SUV finally got out of the way. I pressed down on the gas pedal and drove down Bellmore Avenue in reverse. I got back to the intersection of Bellmore Avenue and Marion Street as I wanted to drive down Marion Street to take cover from the gunfire.

I put my car in drive and looked to my left when I saw Justin limping toward my car. I placed my car in park and got out to see if he was OK. Justin leaned on my car and told me he got hit. I looked at the small of his back and saw blood soaking though his clothing. I saw a green light, which turned out to be a laser sight sweeping across the street. I grabbed Justin and we took cover behind my car on a nearby lawn. I told him to go down and stay down. I looked to my right and saw Chief Taylor behind his car and the ambulance slightly behind him on the opposite side of the street.

I yelled over to Chief Taylor that “Justin was shot, get the ambulance over here.” Chief Taylor called over to the ambulance, informing them we have a gunshot victim. Chief Taylor, Dean and I lifted Justin off the lawn and put him in the back on the ambulance. Dean went back into the driver’s seat and started to drive to the hospital while Pete Pagones and I worked on Justin. I cut off Justin’s clothing, revealing the wound. Among the blood and flesh I saw a metal fragment sticking halfway out of Justin’s back. I took out the piece of metal and saw that it was a copper bullet fragment. I told Pete to apply pressure to the wound using gauze.

Thankfully, Justin was talking and all his vitals appeared to be good. Pete continued to apply pressure to the wound as I popped my head into the chauffeur’s cab to let Dean know his brother was doing OK. I wanted to keep Dean calm and updated on Justin’s status. The ambulance pulled up to the emergency room and we rolled Justin inside. We informed the doctors of the situation and they took care of the rest.

This account is by Bellmore Fire Department Chief Robert Taylor, who responded directly to the scene; First Assistant Chief Daniel Holl also contributed to this account:

When the pager went off, I was at home. I began to put on my shoes and started heading for the door. While doing so, I heard Ambulance 6011 and my two assistant chiefs responding on my scanner in the kitchen. I knew there would be a quick response because a meeting was just finishing up at headquarters. I was about a block away when I heard 6011 arrive with a corrected location, just two blocks south of the location that we were dispatched to. About two seconds later, Dean Angell, who was the driver of 6011, and who is also Justin’s brother, yelled over the radio, “Shots fired! He’s shooting at us!”

I rounded the corner onto the block to see 6011 backing up at a high rate of speed and heard Dean sounding the air horn that is mounted on Ambulance 6011 – they were heading right at me! I pulled to the side and that’s when I saw Justin leaning on Firefighter Matt Podolski’s car. I got out of my chief’s car and Matt yelled, “He’s shot, Justin’s shot!” Justin then collapsed on the grass. Matt was right by his side and started to evaluate his injuries. My two assistant chiefs pulled up. With the gunman still not detained and the Nassau County Police Department still not on scene, I heard my second assistant chief transmit to the dispatcher to keep everyone off the block. I ordered Ambulance 6011 to pull up so we could get Justin in the ambulance. Dean exited the ambulance to help us get Justin into the ambulance. It was at this time when Dean learned his brother had been shot by the crazed gunman. Matt, Dean and I then scooped Justin up and put him in the ambulance. They immediately left for the hospital.

I ran back to my first assistant chief and gave him a quick rundown of what had happened. I also immediately told him to follow the ambulance to the hospital. As 600-01 (the first assistant chief) left the scene, the crazed gunman began shooting numerous rounds at us. My second assistant chief (600-02) and I took cover behind our cars. No other members were present on scene, but several more units were responding, as heard on the radio. My thought was not wanting to put any other units and personnel in danger. I ordered all units to stay off the block. I also had a staging area set up at Engine Company 2. This is our firehouse that is approximately three blocks south of the accident scene. I also radioed the dispatcher for a forthwith police response since they had not yet arrived and the gunman was still a threat to my assistant chief, me and also the members of the community.

Within moments, the Nassau County police arrived and secured the scene. Once the fire department was no longer needed at the scene, I responded to the staging area to brief the members who responded to the alarm. My second assistant chief and I then responded up to the hospital to be with Justin. It should be noted that after the arrival of the Nassau County Police Department, the suspect was shot and killed.

The following comments by Chief Goldfeder are based on the accounts featured in this two-part column:

Our focus last month and this month is on several incidents that literally “came out of nowhere” as fire and EMS personnel responding had no indications that anything would be different, other than what they were dispatched to. While size-up must be done while arriving at ANY incident and we look for the unexpected, sometimes there is simply nothing we can do and we learned about those tragic results from these accounts.

There have, however, been many other incidents that have resulted in the shooting (or related such as stabbing) injury or death of firefighters and EMTs that WERE avoidable. As eager as we are to help, NEVER FORGET that these are police incidents first and we respond in only when the scene is safe as determined by the police. We CANNOT place ourselves or our personnel in harm’s way when we have the slightest bit of information that there MAY be a violence-related risk for us. ALWAYS WAIT FOR THE POLICE. No matter how bad it may be or sound, you are NOT expected to enter a scene of violence without the authorization and protection of law enforcement.

Responding fire and EMS personnel must pay attention, listen to the radio, stage far away and be aware, it is also critical that the fire and related communication centers, dispatchers and telecommunicators share ALL information with us – as well as with the police – so there is no breakdown in the facts of what is going on at the scene. Unfortunately, there are cases when the police know “this and that” about an incident and fire-EMS personnel do not – and all are going on the same run. As critical as fire and EMS training is, so is training for fire, EMS and police communication personnel to ensure they understand just how important their role is.

Our intent is to help people and we do that when we have the right tools, training, equipment and conditions. When we have any information that a scene may be a “bad” one, the POLICE – and no one else – tell us when it is safe. Our instinct that “the scene may be safe” is nonsense. Any suspected violent scene is NOT safe or secure for us until the police say it is.

There are times in your service as a firefighter or EMT when you may have to place yourself in harm’s way with extreme personal danger and risk to save a life; that is accepted and understandable. However, when we have information that a scene is violent, that would NOT be one of those cases when we are expected to take any risk.

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