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3 ways firefighters can mitigate violence

Firefighters and medics are attacked with increasing frequency, follow these steps to shift the survival odds in your favor

Medics stabbed in San Diego and Detroit; firefighters held hostage in Georgia; firefighters shot at in Florida, shot and killed in Arkansas. Every week there is another story in the news about a first responder who is attacked, assaulted and even killed while performing their duties.

This escalating spiral of violence is the new reality for fire and EMS. We are no longer immune to violence directed at responders. Gone are the days when we all believed that everyone is happy to see us, the guys in the white hats riding in to save the day.

This new reality requires a new mindset: a tactical mindset.

For most of us, our academy experience taught us to always be conscious of scene security issues. Unfortunately those were limited to live electric lines, gas leaks and the occasional patient who didn’t want to hurt us — they were just under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the building, our brothers and sisters in blue were being taught that everyone you encounter represents a potential threat. They were taught how to maintain situational awareness and to see a person’s hands at all time because their hands will hurt or kill you.

It’s time we started to bridge that knowledge gap with fire and EMS providers. We need to teach our people to be tactical and to view every call through a lens of survival.

Here are three steps every crew should take to increase their chances of survival.

1. Believe it will happen
I tell students that first and foremost you have to believe that this can happen to you. On any given day, you will encounter someone who is capable of and willing to harm you for no other reason than the fact that you are in uniform.

If you don’t acknowledge this fact, you will not take the steps necessary to maintain situational awareness and see the trouble before trouble sees you. The signs of trouble are almost always there if you are open to the idea that it can happen today, it can happen to you and you have a plan to react.

2. Have a plan
Once you have accepted that you can be the intended target of violence, start planning the response to violence directed towards you or your crew. We call this “hangar flying.”

Discuss the what-ifs. Talk through different scenarios and how you will react, develop a plan of action.

Visualization is an excellent way to prepare for an event. Studies show that the act of thinking through a scenario will increase your proficiency and produce a more reliable outcome than just waiting until something happens and making up a plan on the fly.

In an article for Sport Psychology Today entitled “The Power of Visualization,” author Matt Neason wrote, “What happens out there is a result of what happens in here. In simple terms, this means your performance is often the result of what’s happening inside your head, or more specifically the movies and soundtracks playing inside your head.”

The alternative is to rely on the odds that you will do the right thing in a time of extreme stress and intensity, and those odds are not good. In fact they are about 1 in 3.

Many people believe that in times of extreme danger and stress they rise to the occasion. In truth, instead of rising, most people fall to the level of their training and preparation.

Extreme stress creates what Col. David Grossman and Loren Christensen refer to in their book “On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace” as “condition black.”

Increased heart rates, respirations, blood pressure and adrenaline dumps that result in decreased fine motor skills, narrowing of vision and auditory exclusion. In short you are not thinking, you are reacting.

If you have trained your mind and body though visualization, physical conditioning and training, you will react more predictably and your chances of surviving go way up.

Develop an emergency evacuation plan for use when a problem develops that includes a code word for your crew as well as a rally point to meet up after you get out. Never enter a structure without identifying at least two ways out in case it hits the fan and you cannot leave the way you came in.

Identify things that you have carried in or that are available in the space you are working in that can be used as weapons should you have to fight.

3. Practice the plan
Once you have accepted that violence can happen and developed a plan for situational awareness and response, you have to practice the plan. Incorporate it into your daily routine so it becomes as automatic as donning your gear when the tone drops.

Mental preparation, planning and practice will create a tactical mindset that will help you identify threats before they materialize or to respond effectively if they do.

Some may consider this way of thinking a bit paranoid, but you know what they say: You’re not paranoid if they are really after you.

Chief Rob Wylie is a 29-year fire service veteran who retired as fire chief of the Cottleville FPD in St. Charles County, Missouri. Wylie has served as a tactical medic and TEMS team leader with the St. Charles Regional SWAT team for the past 19 years. He is a certified instructor and teaches at the state, local and national level on leadership, counter-terrorism and TEMS operations. Wylie graduated from Lindenwood University, the University of Maryland Staff and Command School and the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Connect with Wylie on LinkedIn.