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Are rioters your next safety threat?

Social unrest is beyond the boiling point and any community with poverty must prepare for violence directed at the system — including firefighters


Watching Baltimore burn this week reminded me of what should be our first rule of thumb when on scene: risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little and risk nothing to save nothing.

Seeing images of protesters shoving knives into charged supply lines and fire trucks with smashed windshields was enraging. And it’s more enraging because I have a hard time buying the argument that all of the violence in Baltimore or Ferguson was caused by outsiders.

The quick and easy reaction is that unless there are trapped victims, there’s nothing about a rioter-set building fire that’s worth saving and nothing should be risked. Stay in quarters and let it burn.

Yet as was the case in Ferguson, Baltimore firefighters took to the streets to battle more than 100 vehicle and structure fires. And when they exhausted their resources, neighboring departments volunteered to pick up the slack.

Given the war-zone volatility of Baltimore, you have to admire the courage of the responders who turned out.

And when the smoke finally began to clear, the community stepped up to thank its responders. Residents delivered food, water and ‘thank yous’ to fire stations Tuesday and Wednesday. Residents were coming down to the stations “with arms full of stuff,” Baltimore fire union President Rick Hoffman told the Baltimore Sun.

All of a sudden, those nothing-of-value burning structures have value. They meant something to the community. It meant something to the community to see the firefighters at great peril to themselves dumping water on buildings that they knew couldn’t be saved.

In short, the good people were doing more than nothing.

The civil unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson are only partly about the black community’s relationship with police. For my money, the underlying cause is poverty. When people have financial security and legitimate hope for the future, street crime wanes.

But there’s no magic pixie dust that will wipe away poverty. That leaves fire and EMS leaders across the country with the real probability of dealing with social unrest in their communities. When rioters lash out against the system, fire departments are part of that system — undeservedly, but a part of it nonetheless.

I expect to see more, not less, of this type of social unrest in the coming years.

Firefighters are conditioned to fight fire. When rioters start burning down the town, expect firefighters to turnout. It falls to the chiefs to carefully plan before unrest erupts and company officers to carry out those plans to protect firefighter lives.

If you have poverty, you can expect to have violence. Plan now for how much you are willing to risk and how to minimize that threat to fire and EMS crews when they are thrust into the thick of it.

The community is depending on the good people to do more than nothing.

Rick Markley is the former editor-in-chief of FireRescue1 and Fire Chief, a volunteer firefighter and fire investigator. He serves on the board of directors of and is actively involved with the International Fire Relief Mission, a humanitarian aid organization that delivers unused fire and EMS equipment to firefighters in developing countries. He holds a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s of fine arts. He has logged more than 15 years as an editor-in-chief and written numerous articles on firefighting. He can be reached at