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On scene: 6 tips to avoid fireground violence

Firefighters and medics need to know how to identify potentially violent scenes and how to react.

By Lt. Dan Marcou

Firefighting and EMS calls are challenging enough, when the problem is the fire, the patient's condition, or an injury. The challenge and danger to the first responder can be complicated when the fire or rescue is not the problem, but merely a symptom of a problem. Here are some specific examples.

The dangerous individual
It is not uncommon for fire departments to be called to the scene of what has been described as a medical emergency only to discover they are also at the scene of a crime in progress, with no police yet dispatched.

When this occurs you need to have predetermined a radio code that tells your dispatcher there is trouble on scene and they need to dispatch law enforcement immediately. This code should be designed so that it can be used in front of, yet without alarming, a suspect. For example, "Contact Dalmatian one and tell them we are on scene."

When dealing with individuals, law enforcement personnel recognize certain early-warning signs of danger that fire, rescue or EMS crews also should heed.

When a person conspicuously ignores you look out.

Conversely, suspects who exhibit excessive emotional attention coupled with exaggerated movements could be adrenalized. A person who is adrenalized is preparing to fight or flee.

Use caution after observing these indicators especially if the suspect suddenly ceases all movement. This is often a precursor to an assault.

Another danger sign is anytime the suspect has a known violent history, because as the philosopher once said, “History repeats itself.”

Some pre-attack postures that should also set off alarms are when a person sets himself up in a boxer or fighting stance. Add tense facial muscles with fists clenched and you know you are navigating in dangerous waters.

Be able to identify the significance of a target glance. If law enforcement is on scene, the glance may be toward one of the officer's weapons, a gun case, or an exit.

A very dangerous individual may possess the thousand-yard stare. Once you have seen it you know it forever.

In one instance, a police officer suddenly cut in front of two paramedics, who were assessing a bleeding suspect. The officer quickly took a suspect to the floor restrained and handcuffed him. The multiple indicators as well as the pre-attack postures had heightened the officer's awareness, who had seen the suspect reaching for the knife.

Excited delirium
Some medical studies have identified a phenomenon alternately called "in custody death syndrome" and "excited delirium." This is a condition where wild criminal actions of a suspect may be symptomatic of a medical emergency.

In these cases the suspects seem to possess super-human strength and often appear oblivious to pain. Individuals suffering from this usually have torn all or many of their clothes off. This is because they feel incredibly hot.

They usually have drugs on them and speak incoherently. They perceive they are in imminent danger of death and fight like it.

After an exhaustive struggle, these individuals often just quietly die.

Studies continue and are revealing that TASERs, pepper spray, neck restraints, police and emergency personnel are not killing these people. Many are enroute to death before emergency personnel are even dispatched.

This is a circumstance police and emergency personnel must prepare for as a team. It is important to get the suspect restrained as quickly as possible, with as little a struggle as possible. Medication to instantly calm them will help to prevent their fight to the death.

Crowds and civil unrest
Since crowds will be at the scene of most fires, it is important to be aware of the transitional steps a crowd may take. Most crowds will just stand and watch. Others may become dangerous, or may already be dangerous upon your arrival.

Crowds can fall into several broad categories:

  • The casual crowd just happens to be coming and going through an area.
  • The cohesive crowd has gathered for a shared purpose, such as the crowd that is watching firefighters fighting a fire.  
  • The expressive crowd can be a good thing if they are cheering the rescue of a small child. It is potentially dangerous for police and fire if they begin to chant, “Let it Burn! Let it burn,” while encroaching on the scene.
  • The aggressive crowd is dangerous to everyone in its path. Usually individuals within the crowd lead the crowd down a violent and destructive path.

During civil disturbances arson is a common symptom of the unrest, which is the actual problem. Firefighters and police should have scene-security plans in place for all crowd situations. The plan should include circumstances that would cause a crew to not respond or to disengage from a dangerous fire scene.

Firefighters are often sent to fires set during civil disturbances caused by aggressive crowds. Whether it is an impromptu park-bench-bonfire disturbance following a sporting event or arson fires that erupt like lights on an airport runway during major civil disturbances, fires are dangerous and need to be extinguished.

Responding fire units need to understand, however the fires are merely a symptom of the problem. The problem is the rioters, who started the fire. It is important to have law enforcement direct your units safely to the scene, as well as to standby while you fight the fire.

Otherwise the next day you may be watching your fire truck burn on the evening news.

Terrorist bomb
Fire departments will undoubtedly be called to the scene after an explosion. Just remember that a common tactic of the terror bomber is to set off a secondary device after first responders arrive.

Injured victims need to be urgently evacuated from bomb sites because of the possibility of this secondary device.

Shots fired
During the Los Angeles riots in 1992, LAFD Capt. Carl Butler and his crew were fighting a fire on Vermont Blvd. While on scene, Capt. Butler found himself suddenly confronted by a man armed with an AK-47.

Butler, in an interview with ABC News described the man like this, "He is a mad man. This is his night. I remember his eyes, I remember the muzzle of the assault rifle he had. I kept expecting it to go off. If he killed me he was going to kill my crew."

The crisis plan for LAFD had been for police to escort fire units to every scene in the event of a civil disturbance, but because of the sweeping magnitude of this riot the plan was not feasible. There were not enough police to respond to every fire scene any more than there was enough fire companies to respond in a timely fashion to the hundreds of fires burning throughout the city at once.

Butler reacted. He ordered his crew to abandon their fire unit and then retreated. The crew broke into a home and barricaded themselves there until they were rescued by members of the SWAT team.

Butler's unorthodox order to abandon the trucks may have saved the life of his crew.

Bad scene options
When your intention is to fight a fire, but you suddenly find your crew faced with an armed man like Captain Butler, what would you do? In making your decision, remember your survival is now the priority, not the fire. Here are some options:

  • Communicate. If you have thought of nothing else to do or say, start with an introduction. If they are talking they are not shooting. Keep your brain working and look for additional options.
  • Submit. This puts you into the merciful or unmerciful hands of the suspect.
  • Find and move to cover. Cover places you out of sight of the suspect and stops the bullets in the gun the suspect is firing. The opposite side of the truck including the tire, axle and hub will stop most rounds.
  • Escape. Some member of the crew will be in a position to escape and call for law enforcement. Remember a laterally moving target is the hardest to hit.
  • Fight. This may not be the best option for survival, but the only option for survival. When facing a shooter bent on killing everyone he meets until he runs out of bullets or victims, fighting may be your last resort. In fighting there is hope.

Firefighters are by no means unarmed. They have large and small hand tools as well as several hundred pounds of water pressure at their disposal.

Firefighters also travel in numbers, which may allow them to distract, flank and swarm a suspect. Using tools as weapons is defensible if faced with imminent death or great bodily harm.

Now is the time to think, "When law enforcement is minutes away and I have but moments to live, what will I do?"

About the author
Lt. Dan Marcou retired after 33 years of full-time law enforcement. He is a columnist for PoliceOne, a sister publication of FireRescue1, and an internationally recognized trainer and writer. He has authored three novels, which are available through Barnes and Noble and Amazon. They are a trilogy, "The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop, "SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor" and "Nobody, Heroes."




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