Who's in charge of an emergency scene? The answer is fairly clear-cut if we are talking about fires or criminal activity. For some reason, the line blurs when we get into things like motor vehicle crashes.
The common belief among the fire community is that the fire chief or ranking officer on scene commands all fire and rescue operations. It is safe to assume that this plays out most of the time without command conflict.
The monkey wrench in this gear work is of course vehicle crashes where police assume traffic-control authority. We are often at cross-purposes with cops: they want to keep traffic moving and we want to protect emergency workers and victims.
This isn't anything new.
Many of us have gone back to the fire station after a call and griped about the police on scene. Fewer of us have actually had a confrontation with police, and fewer still have been arrested over such a confrontation.
But as this story and other like it show, these disagreements over who is giving the orders on an emergency scene do escalate to the point of arrest.
There are exceptions to everything, but cuffing or arresting firefighters or medics on scene does not improve the chance of a successful operation — especially when the police action removes the fire officer. It compromises the safety of firefighters, other responders and may put patients in greater harm.
It is easy to look at the South Carolina case and speculate that local politics and personal feelings played a role in the arrests. However, many of us know the cops in our jurisdictions — for better or for worse. So the potential for personal flare-ups is prevalent in many communities.
The ideal solution is prevention. One way to achieve this would be binding agreements between police and fire on command structure followed with joint training to show how that would play out.
Failing that, there should be iron-clad laws in each state that establish emergency-scene command and penalize those who violate it.
There may be a few of us who have had close calls with cops, but I'd venture that nearly all of us have had close calls with motorists. Whoever is commanding the scene, and I think it should be fire, must put personnel safety first.
Fighting over who is in charge accomplishes the exact opposite.