Quick Take: 4 lessons the fire service learned during civil unrest

How months of civil unrest forced the fire service to build new community relationships, fight for access, step up communication and protect its members


To watch the full Lexipol webinar, "Caught in the middle: Fire department response during civil unrest," click here to view on demand. 

After the death of George Floyd on May 25, public safety agencies responded to civil unrest incidents across the country. For months, fire departments worked to put out fires and gain access to patients while navigating sometimes volatile or chaotic scenes.

In the Lexipol webinar, “Caught in the middle: Fire department response during civil unrest,” fire service leaders discuss key takeaways from these incidents and how the fire service can be better prepared in the future.

Presented in partnership with the IAFC, the webinar panel featured expert analysis from several chief officers:

  • Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder, Loveland-Symmes (Ohio) Fire Department
  • 1st Deputy Chief Byron Kennedy, Atlanta Fire Rescue
  • Chief Gary Ludwig, Champaign (Illinois) Fire Department
  • Chief Harold Scoggins, Seattle Fire Department
  • Chief of Department John Sudnik, FDNY

Memorable quotes

“Our goal was to support people exercising their First Amendment rights, to be there to provide care when needed.” – Chief Harold Scoggins

“We knew it was coming. With Atlanta being in the south, we were not strangers to protest, we were not strangers to demonstrations. We were more than moderately prepared, or so we thought.” – 1st Deputy Chief Byron Kennedy

“The protestors are smart, they know what we are monitoring, and I believe sometimes they would send us down the wrong way, then divide off and produce other issues as they decentralized and moved to other parts of the city.” – 1st Deputy Chief Byron Kennedy

“This may be the lull before the storm. In my opinion, whichever way the election goes, we’re going to see reaction to that.” – Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder

“When you put on the uniform and report for duty, you leave your political opinions at home.” – Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder

“It was not only civil unrest in the communities, it was attacks on firefighters. We saw our apparatus attacked, we saw our memorials attacked, we saw firefighters individually attacked. We had to launch a massive media campaign saying, ‘We’re not the enemy. We’re the same ones that ran into the towers. We’re the same ones that went into your home when you were sick from COVID-19 and took you to the hospital. We’re the same ones that when you call 911, we respond. We are not the enemy. Please do not attack us. We are here to help; we are not here to hurt.’” – Chief Gary Ludwig

Top 4 takeaways from the fire service response to civil unrest

During the webinar, Goldfeder asked the other chief officers to describe their department’s response related to four key areas during the past few months of civil unrest: firefighter safety, access, communications and community relationships.

1. Firefighter safety

The safety and wellbeing of fire department members was a top priority among the chief officers.

“Before my time … there was some civil unrest in New York City in the 1960s and 70s, but for our workforce today, this is a new concept,” FDNY Chief Sudnik said. “We have to draw upon what we have in our policies and our procedures.”

The planning, much of it created with the lessons of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in mind, focused on the strength of the FDNY’s relationship with the NYPD, as well as the creation of several task forces.

“We had two teams of liaisons that were embedded with the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group that would provide intelligence and situational awareness for us,” Sudnik said. “Before we committed our crews, we would know when the right time was to actually go in and fight the fires.”

Having that direction made a big difference, he added.

“We are not going to rush into a situation where we can get our firefighters hurt and injured,” Sudnik said. “Everything is risk vs. reward; you want to have a measured response.”

The key to successfully embedding with law enforcement is muscle memory, according to Seattle’s Chief Scoggins. When the city started experiencing civil unrest events, the fire department embedded a deputy chief at the Seattle Police Operations Command Center daily during the events of civil unrest in the city.

“[Muscle memory] comes from the football games, the parade, the events,” he said. “Any time we have a significant event, that’s an action that we take, so this was normal for us.”

On June 8, Seattle protestors took over a six-block radius of the city, creating a static situation, according to the chief, putting member safety front and center. In response, the SFD created hot and warm zones that designated where they could and could not go, based on what they were seeing and hearing from the ground.

According to Ludwig, firefighter safety stems from good relationships, and those are built before a crisis.

“Make a friend before you need a friend,” he advised during the panel. “How many times does a person in your community call 911 in a year? Probably none. Their interaction with you is very limited. We need to be out in the community, doing public relations, doing safe houses, other types of community events where the community can relate to us and we can relate to the community, so that when [civil unrest] events do occur, we’re not a target.”

2. Scene access

On June 12, Rayshard Brooks was shot by an Atlanta police officer after an altercation in the parking lot of a Wendy’s. On the night of June 13, Brooks’ girlfriend, Natalie White, allegedly set fire to the restaurant; it was eventually engulfed in flames.   

“The Wendy’s presented so many challenges,” Atlanta Fire Department Chief Kennedy said. “It seemed like it would have been a great place to have fast access and extinguish it right away – very near the interstate.”

A strategically located task force that included three sheriff’s office units, two engines, a truck and a battalion car was ready. However, a large crowd of protestors blocked the highway needed for swift access, forcing the task force members to stage.

Protesters began attacking the police vehicles and then fire apparatus.

“Our units began taking damage as well,” Kennedy said. “Frozen water, rocks, bricks, anything they had, they threw.”

In order to gain access to the fire, the task force units repositioned behind an Atlanta SWAT team, allowing them to get deeper into the area by following close to the armored vehicles. Once on scene, crew members had limited time to attack. The incident commander later told Kennedy that police were asking him, “How long are you guys gonna need? We can’t hold these guys that much longer.”

Firefighters performed a blitz attack on the burning Wendy’s using the deck gun, hitting the fire’s bigger hotspots, and then left.

“It was a really rushed scene, and that access was terrible for us,” he said. “It was difficult.”

In Seattle, firefighters used police escorts to respond to fires within the area that was taken over by protestors.

“You can actually see our firefighters down there putting the fire out, with the protestors just kind of standing back and letting them do their work with our escorts,” Scoggins said. “We did a quick hit operation and got out of there. We did that multiple times.”

3. Communications

The panelists discussed how maintaining open lines of communication between department members and leadership was key to maintaining control over appropriate response to protest movements and participants.

“A lot of these newer firefighters, this is their first time experiencing these incidents of civil unrest,” Sudnik said. “Everybody sitting around a firehouse kitchen table has the tendency to have an opinion, and these are difficult times. We have an election coming up, and it’s a very politically charged environment.”

Leaders at the FDNY took a top-down approach to their message that it’s important to remain neutral on the job, regardless of the situation.

“When you come to work, we’re a team, we work together,” Sudnik said. “We can disagree on politics, but the workplace and with what we do is not the time or place for it.”

That is crucial to maintaining the public’s trust, he added.

“We’re always held in the highest regard in the community, so if we have some misguided rhetoric that is kind of growing out in the field, we have to stem that and cut that off as quick as possible,” Sudnik said.

Ludwig echoed Sudnik’s strategy.

“When we talk about the younger generation, this is what I try to convey to them: ‘This is not about self-interest, it’s about public interest. You’re now a civil servant, you’re here to serve,’” he said.

4. Community relationships

When it comes to community relationships, Sudnik believes the public still sees firefighters as worthy of trust and respect, despite the flared tensions during civil unrest incidents.

“I’m a glass-half-full type of person,” he said. “I’m encouraged that the goodwill the FDNY has built with our communities is long-lasting and that we’re well appreciated.”

However, the pandemic is hampering the department’s ability to nurture that goodwill further due to the pandemic and lack of ability to interact during things like building inspections due to closures, school visits, block parties and fire safety education events.

In Atlanta, where Kennedy said the fire department “blows everyone else out of the water” on city-wide satisfaction surveys, members are looking forward to the day post-COVID-19 they can once again share the station with neighborhood runners, many whose route includes coming into the station.

“Many of the persons who were throwing those frozen water bottles into the glass windows of our apparatus, who were throwing rocks and iron pieces at the trucks, many of those people didn’t necessary live in the city of Atlanta,” he said. “Many of them traveled to the city of Atlanta and said, ‘I don’t really have an investment in these fire trucks,’ and so they were damaged. We know that, we’ve thought about it, and the reality is all we can do is continue to invite the neighborhood into our family.”

Additional resources:

Editor's note: View the on-demand webinar, "Caught in the middle: Fire department response during civil unrest," here.

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