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Violence Against Firefighters – Think About It

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Violence Against Firefighters

Glenn A. Gaines
Deputy U. S. Fire Administrator
Fire Chief (ret.) Fairfax County, Va

When I became interested in becoming a firefighter, I recall my mother saying, "Well I know it is dangerous, but at least you don’t have to worry about being shot. The families of police officers have that to worry about."  In recent times violence against firefighters and EMS personnel has increased to a point where, as leaders, we cannot continue to ignore it.

I recently read over the law enforcement fatality report for 2011 and 2012. As in the past, transportation related deaths are one of the leading the causes. In 2012 the top two line of duty deaths were very close. Fifty (50) officers died from traffic related incidents, forty-nine (49) were killed in the line of duty by gunfire. In 2011, sixty-eight (68) law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty by gunfire and sixty-four (64) killed in transportation related incidents. Approximately 100,000 police were injured due to violence in 2000.

According to a Rand Institute study completed in 2004, approximately 88,000 firefighters are injured due to violence against them each year; about 2,000 of their injuries are potentially life-threatening. The Boston Herald reported in 2005 that over 700,000 assaults occurred against paramedics (I assume they also included EMTs). And finally the Bureau of Labor reports that public sector employees are four (4) times more likely to experience assaults than private sector employees.

ABC News

Although these statistics are focused on police, fire and EMS personnel, I believe something has changed in our American society. Acting out toward others seems to be occurring more often and to some degree is viewed as OK. It has caused me to contemplate if this is the case, then why? I have thought about road rage, spousal abuse, workplace violence, armed attacks against all sorts of innocent people. Some of the social experts are saying the current inter-personal conflicts which mushroom into rage, physical confrontation and gun violence is a consequence of a lack of frequent interaction with others. Experts say we typically begin the day in our home, get into our temperature controlled vehicle, drive to work, enter our cubicle/office, open up the computer work, spend a few moments at lunch (maybe in the company of others), get back into our temperature controlled vehicle, back home and watch TV, play video games or jump on Facebook or Twitter, then off to bed. Back in the day, folks sat out on porches and visited with neighbors and children routinely played outside with the neighbor’s children. No expensive video games, no social media they pretended (better known as visualize or being creative).

Although this scenario is not the only contributor, I believe it is a primary one. What seems to be occurring to firefighters and EMS personnel is just the nature in interpersonal dynamics of the greater society today.

So what to do? These are complicated matters and demand a response that is something more than a one size fits all solution. My thoughts on potential solutions follow and are not necessarily in order:

· Take a serious look at what has occurred and benchmark with your community. Could it happen here? How did the first in resources deploy? What impact did they have, both positive and negative? What are the potentials for this to occur in my backyard and how do our available resources match with those of the agencies involved with the incidents identified?

· Rethink new employee/member training courses to include increased awareness of potential conditions where violence may occur. Include reviews of past incidents and the reports that salient points captured in the hot washes/critiques. Training may include incident risk assessment (what are the types of incidents and areas in our community where these incidents have a high degree of potential for occurring?). Other subjects such as hostage self-survival strategies and how to "size up" an incident scene as you arrive. Where are my escape routes and hard cover should something bad happen?

· Work with local law enforcement to draft operational orders and guidelines aligned with law enforcement operations and tactical plans.

· Hold retraining or refresher courses (short duration) annually involving all field operations personnel. This would be an excellent time to undertake a literature study of incidents occurring since the last retraining/refresher occurred and to review operations with local law enforcement.

· Train and implement with NIMS/ICS on both routine incidents where multiple tasks are commenced simultaneously. Essentially establish command and delegate out tasks.

· Hold an annual inter-agency violence exercise bringing all agencies and city hall leaders and staff to engage. These exercises could include hazardous materials, fire or other more common occurrences that may spark interest of participants. It may be difficult to get the key players there, but, if you make it a big press event and feed them, the political leadership and other agency heads more than likely will attend.

Clearly there are additional answers and proactive steps that can be taken, however, the steps listed here are a great start. One final step should be included. Get to know the agency personnel who will respond to these incidents or maybe impacted by acts of violence. Reach out to city hall, the Chamber of Commerce, the school superintendent, public works/division of highways and of course to all branches of law enforcement. This means of course we have to get out of our routine of segregating ourselves from others who face the same challenges we do. I am not saying it is easy. But if we do it enough, it becomes a whole lot easier.

The views expressed in this article are mine and do not represent those of the U. S. Fire Administration, FEMA, DHS or the Administration. …. Glenn A. Gaines


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Comments - Add Yours

  • Dalmatian90

    I think there is some very selective use of statistics going on here.

    A quick review of 1980, 1990, 1995, 2003, and 2008 shows that the trend has been for deaths by automobile accidents to be going up, and gunfire to be going down.

    1980 had 104 police officers killed by gunfire (intentional), and that was before the crack epidemic shot up urban violence, v. 20 killed in auto related incidents.

    I didn’t have time to fully review the stats right now, but what I suspect has changed in society is not the level of violence but two things:
    1) We report it better with the internet, so people are aware of incidents around the nation more timely and often;
    2) As violence becomes less prevalent, our tolerance for episodes when they do occur becomes lower.

  • Safety Officer

    Chief, I’ve long felt that part of the problem is the militarization of the fire service. We used to make it a point to remind the public that we aren’t cops…you can trust us…now I see EMTs & medics dressing like cops complete with combat boots and military style uniforms. THEY LOOK LIKE THE ENEMY to the impaired, the stupid and especially to new arrivals to our country. They no longer look like “firemen”. Nowadays if you look at medics, cops, firefighters, many, especially the younger crowd, have adopted the biker look. Shaved heads & tattoos. In the minds of the taxpayers, we are now all the same. I don’t know if Fairfax still requires the “Fairfax mustashe” as a group identity, but up here in the north, it’s shaved heads, combat boots and cargo style pants that identify the rescuers. A possible solution? You know the jackets cops where that say “POLICE” on the back? Ours should say “NOT THE POLICE”.

    • Medicdad

      I have been working in EMS for coming on 12 years, and I have always tried to make sure that my patients know that I am not the police. I do my best not to give the appearance of a police officer, not because of the possibility of violence, but because I want my patients to be willing to tell me freely, without fear of punishment, about what is going on with them.
      I have a shaved head, but that is personal preference. I do not think that having a shaved head makes you look like a police officer, or even militarized. I wear 5.11 pants, not because they are “tactical pants,” but because they are comfortable, and practical, not because they look militarized. I wear “combat boots” because they provide an added layer of protection/stability for my feet. My boots are waterproof. I don’t know about you, but I would rather wear a boot that is waterproof, than uniform shoes. I like dry feet, especially on cold days.
      Yes there are people out there that have a military or police look about them, but that is because most of those people are, at the least, former military, I even work with a few people that are full time law enforcement. What is wrong though, with having a “police/mlitary” look? I personally feel that police officers look professional, and tend to present themselves very well. I will even play the game. If we shouldn’t wear “combat boots and military style uniforms”, what then should we be wearing. I am sorry, but I work EMS at least 80hrs/wk as a paramedic, and I am not about to wear scrubs.
      Do I agree that the full length (aka sleeved) tattoo look is not very professional, yes. Do I feel that all visible tattoos should be covered, yes. I am a firm believer in looking professional, no matter what your uniform is. I also know that there are quite a few agencies out there that have changed their uniform, so that they do not look like police. There are even agencies that have switched to polo style shirts.
      I also have to assume that you know very little about EMS as a whole. Most of our career field comes from the military. The way we do things comes from the military. The first ambulances were created by the military. Every department that I have worked for is made up of at least 25% veterans. I would rather work with someone that looks “military”, i.e., a clean hair cut, clean shaven, uniform that is neat (not overly wrinkled, looking like it was slept in), and boots that are taken care of, as opposed to some of the slobs that I have seen. Unfortunately most of those people work for transport services. They walk around with their boots bloused, shifts untucked, and look like they just rolled out of bed, haven’t had a haircut in weeks, and haven’t shaved for 5yrs. In your opinion what should we wear, how should we look?

  • Safety Officer

    I’ve personally seen medics wearing gun belts ( without the holster) as a gadget belt. Poor choice in attire in my opinion. We can’t appear the be “the man”. The public has to let us into their homes on short notice to help in an emergency, we can’t have them worrying that we will rat them out for the weed growing in the bucket by the back door….or the fact that their kid is laying there on the floor nearly dead from an OD. We can’t have them saying….(in the words of Steve Martin in Roxanne)…..For Gods sake whatever you do, DON’T call the fire department!” If our customers start thinking of us as the enemy, every single one of us walking into a home in a questionable neighborhood is at risk. Dress however you feel you need to, but understand its all about perception.

  • Medicdad

    It would appear that you have had a very limited exposure to emergency services then. What you are refering to as a “gun belt,” is actually a uniform belt. While I do not personally wear one, I know many people that do, and I have NEVER, repeat NEVER, heard anyone refer to it as a gun belt. Seventy-five percent of the time, the people that I have seen wearing uniform or duty belts, are brand new EMT’s, and they have every gizmo that you can think of. They also carry multiple radios, pagers, and cell phones, plus the scissor holders (notice that I didn’t put holster, next you might say that the scissor holster resembles a gun holster) the glove pouch, and a flashlight holder. At one point in every EMT/Paramedics career, we all carried similar equipment. I personally wear a riggers belt, are you going to say that wearing a riggers belt gives the misconception that I am a police officer. I doubt that you are even in emergency services, because if you were, you would realize that most of the violence against EMS is due to either a medical/traumatic reason, or because someone is trying to steal the narcotics from the paramedic. I have worked in a few different settings, and have never heard of a provider being assaulted because we look like the police. I believe that you need to pull your head out of the sand and do a little more research, before you make a fool of yourself…..AGAIN.