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Violence against firefighters: A checklist for survival

Planning for acts of violence before they occur is key to mitigating their impact

Although violence towards first responders from the public we serve isn’t new, the frequency and intensity feels like it’s increasing. In fact, the Firefighter Life Safety Initiative Number 12 calls for national protocols for response to violent incidents be developed and championed.

One of the more interesting items is that several studies indicated a consistent rate of attacks on fire service. In some countries, noticeably the United Kingdom, direct attacks on fire brigades are well documented. The shooting of fire service members is, unfortunately, not a new phenomenon.

The standard model of risk management travels from low frequency to high frequency from left to right, and low risk to high risk moving up the graph. Clearly, even with any national increase in violence, the phenomenon is a low-frequency event for the fire service. It is, however, just as clearly a high-risk event at the same time.

Hazard training

An argument can and should be made that OSHA/PEOSH General Duty Clause would require that employers and our industry in general are well aware of this danger in our workplace.

This knowledge leads to our general duty to provide appropriate training, equipment and protection to our members. In my home state of New York, workplace violence training is mandate for career and volunteer departments alike.

A large portion of the resources connected to Initiative 12 deal with scenarios where violence has already occurred, is continuing to occur or can be assumed to occur when public safety arrives.

However, as we’ve discovered when we are the initial focus on the violence there aren’t quite as many resources available. The Final Report for Initiative 12 outlines preliminary checklist when confronted with a violent incident.

  1. If your initial size-up assesses a threat of confrontation, wait for police assistance. Do not insert yourself into the situation.
  2. If you find yourself in a confrontation where you can remove yourself to wait for police assistance, do it.
  3. If confronted with non-lethal force (no weapons are involved), defend yourself and attempt to control the situation using non-lethal force.
  4. If confronted with lethal force, use whatever means is necessary to eliminate the threat or get out of the way. At times, this could mean not doing anything at all that might provoke the attacker. This would be an appropriate course of action when a gun is pointed at you.

All planning is local

Our members tend to be can-do people who want to help and want to get right into the situation. Quite frankly these are not the only people who gravitate to our organizations, but we like having them.

But, that can-do attitude can clearly put them in the wrong place.

For many agencies the local police are not very local, and are responding from quite a distance. This puts firefighters at even greater risk.

Waiting until the event to talk to your police agencies about how you’ll communicate and address such horrible scenarios is simply unacceptable.

No geographic area is immune to violence and resources are out there, so get out and train, talk and prepare.

Learn how to make your department a safer place in Tom LaBelle’s FireRescue1 column, ‘The Butcher’s Bill.’ LaBelle provides tips, advice and opinions that balance accomplishing strategic objectives with making sure every firefighter goes home.