How to prepare for violent incidents

Use these 9 questions and 14 steps to prepare your fire department for incidents that turn violent

By John H. Oates, Fire Chief, East Hartford, Conn.

They are mostly known by a single name: Columbine, Virginia Tech, 9/11, and now, Newtown and Webster. These significant events, shootings, violence of unfathomable magnitude can take years to overcome, if ever.

Within each incident, among the sad, injured, and distraught is a common image: a fire engine. There would not be a fire engine if not for a firefighter.

As firefighters, we are called upon every day to provide assistance to a wide range of incidents. Occasionally, in our efforts to help others, we become the victims of violent events, resulting in injury or even death.

From violent crimes in our neighborhoods to terrorist attacks on a grand scale, the risk to firefighters seems to be increasing. Recent events in Connecticut and western New York have renewed our focus on decreasing that risk.

Nine questions

  1. Do you use risk/benefit analysis for every call?
  2. Do you have an effective relationship at all levels with the law enforcement agencies in your community?
  3. How good is the information you get from your dispatcher?
  4. Do you allow members to first respond directly to the scene?
  5. Does your law enforcement agency use an incident management system?
  6. When responding to a potentially violent incident, do you seek out a law enforcement officer when you arrive?
  7. Have you told your fire officers/personnel that it is OK to leave the scene if things start to turn bad?
  8. Is there a point where you don't respond or limit your response to violent incidents?
  9. Is your uniform easily mistaken for law enforcement?

Initiative 12
Firefighter Life Safety Initiative 12 states that, "national protocols for response to violent incidents should be developed and championed." Following the 2004 and 2007 Firefighter Life Safety Summits, efforts were made to develop a national protocol for responding to violent incidents. Communities and groups have taken steps to specifically address the issue on local and national levels. Even with that effort, there remains an absence of response protocols for violent incidents in many fire departments.

Recognizing that progress had been limited, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation convened a focus group on March 9-10, 2012. Thirty-five participants representing 29 organizations attended. The participants were selected based upon their research and work in the area of response to violent incidents by emergency response personnel.

On the first day, the discussions reflected the general sense that violent acts against first responders are underreported. Anecdotal evidence abounds; hard data is lacking.

One of the challenges at the core of this issue is defining a violent act. The discussions revealed a diversity of perspective and viewpoint. One person may consider being punched or kicked by a rowdy patient as a violent act. Another may think such incidents are just part of the job. Consequently events like these may be unreported.

Responding to violence
But developing a definition and disseminating reports of our response to violent incidents is just the starting point. How to respond quickly and effectively to violent incidents is a considerable concern. Many violent incidents that firefighters respond to begin as a "typical" call — an unknown injured party, a response to extinguish an outside fire, even injuries from an assault are calls that fire departments respond to every day.

Too many times these responses turn violent. The solution to protecting firefighters, while serving the public, lies in the experience of those who have survived a violent event.

A significant portion of the focus group work was presentations by representatives from several fire departments who had responded to the outcome of a violent incident. These included the Columbine High School shootings, the tragic shooting of a Lexington, Ky. fire department lieutenant and several civil disturbances including gunfire at a fire department headquarters.

Participants heard about actions implemented in each jurisdiction following their incident. These outcomes and changes were dissected to understand how these, or similar, steps could be incorporated into national protocols.

After listening to each presentation and contemplating the circumstances surrounding each event, the group developed 14 recommendations and conclusions that are guidelines for the fire service to reduce the risk of serious injury or death in potentially violent situations. This set of recommendation is available here. Within those recommendation is a Preliminary Checklist When Confronted with a Violent Incident.

The group proposed that all departments should have a policy in place for handling or responding to a violent situation. Several policy examples are available on the Everyone Goes Home web page, Departments should not delay creating and implementing a policy that is realistic for their jurisdiction.

2 key points
The group made two final points.

First, an after-action review is critically important after every call, including response to violent incidents. Capturing information and sharing it throughout your organization sets the path for improvement.

Second, is a process to deal with the aftereffects. Responses to violent incidents, particularly those that injure or kill a member, create long lasting mental images. A behavioral health model that meets the latest NFPA 1500 requirements must be available to all department members.

As firefighters, we must be well prepared for any event, including life-threatening and violent situations. The recommendations outlined in the Firefighter Life Safety 12 Final Report — along with all the other FLSI Reports — are a must-read for everyone in the fire service.

The recent events should bring clarity and focus to this effort. Your community is not immune. No fire department is so well prepared that it cannot benefit from further work. Even a 'typical' call can deteriorate into a violent incident.

Take the time to ensure your members, company, station, or department is better prepared tomorrow than they are today.

14 Recommendations

  1. To standardize identification, the federal definition of a violent incident should be adopted.
  2. The National Fire Incident Reporting System should be modified to include appropriate data fields to facilitate statistical data collection and analysis of violent incidents.
  3. Response agencies must adhere to a unified command structure that reinforces the use of an integrated incident management system. Multiple or separate command posts should be discouraged.
  4. No resource should be permitted to self-dispatch or self-deploy to any incident. All requests for assistance should emanate from the command post following established protocols.
  5. Radio and communication discipline should be stressed so that conflicting information can be evaluated before action is taken. Concurrently, on-scene personnel movements must be tracked through an accountability system to prevent emergency responders from becoming victims of friendly fire.
  6. Dispatch should provide all emergency responders with historical data for specific locations or individuals so that the responders can develop and implement defensive tactics in anticipation of a potential violent incident. Where legal obstacles prevent the dissemination of such information, efforts should be undertaken to enact laws or regulations to permit this information to be shared with emergency responders.
  7. All emergency response agencies should adopt protocols and policies dealing with response to violent incidents. Examples of such protocols and policies are provided in the appendices of this report. These policies should be as inclusive and encompassing as possible while recognizing the resource limitations of each particular agency. Protocols should also include policies on the dissemination of information to family members, the media and the general public.
  8. Training programs should be developed that include recognition of the potential for violent incidents; situational awareness and appropriate actions to take during violent incidents; and self-defense strategies and tactics to employ if confronted by a violent incident. Agencies should participate in multi-discipline training exercises that can simulate an event and create opportunities to refine and improve the strategy and tactics to be used during a violent incident.
  9. The potential for violent incidents should be considered when constructing new facilities. Where appropriate, construction-hardening features including access-limiting designs should be incorporated.
  10. Prior to and during times of heightened or sensitive events, fire departments should conduct planning sessions with law enforcement and other response elements to discuss how operations will proceed before, during and after the event. During such planning, member protection and situational awareness should be emphasized.
  11. Fire service organizations should proactively provide information and intelligence to fusion centers for evaluation and analysis on an ongoing basis.
  12. Fire departments and law enforcement agencies should work together to develop procedures or guidelines for response to active shooters, including incidents at schools and mass-gathering facilities.
  13. After-action review should be standard operating procedure in all fire departments.
  14. National, state and local stakeholders should be used to mobilize efforts that create awareness and advance this initiative. These same networks can be used to ensure that the training, policies and protocols created to address this initiative are distributed in a sensitive manner.

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