Rapid Response: Firefighters describe alarming moments during riots

Close calls in dire times demands vigilance, perseverance and the option to pull back in order to stay safe

What happened

Some areas of the country have been described as a “war zone” over the last four nights, and police violence protests have even broken out near U.S. embassies in Germany, the United Kingdom and Denmark.

In the United States, many fire departments that have historically remained isolated from the injury and damage of riots have found themselves squarely wedged between rioters and the communities they serve – and in several cases, rioters targeted firefighters.

Trey Smith, a captain with the Charlotte (N.C.) Fire Department, posted a photo on his Facebook page that tells the story well:

“A brick thrown at our apparatus (by rioters not protestors) came a little too close to my head and my crew last night. At least 5-6 Charlotte Fire apparatus or chief vehicles were struck by thrown objects during a confined space rescue incident in the middle of the protests/riot in uptown. Your CFD firefighters are in good shape despite some nearby pepper grenades making their way into the warm zone. What an incredible sight to see 30+ brothers and sisters working together to free a person who fell 25' into a transformer vault below grade and enduring objects being thrown, flash bangs detonating around you, pepper grenade smoke choking out your ability to breathe or see, all while wearing your body armor and making a technical rope rescue in just under 15 minutes. Professionalism at its highest… great work CFD. And a tremendous Thank You to our Brothers in Blue for protecting us the entire night and during this incident.”

The Charlotte (North Carolina) Fire Department is no stranger to civil unrest, having begun training for civil unrest teams in 2015, before the Baltimore riots related to the death of Freddie Gray and before the Charlotte unrest from the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott in September 2016.

Prior to widespread acceptance of the Rescue Task Force concept, Police Assist Companies (PAC) around the city were trained to work behind the lines, dragging victims (protester or provider) to safety. It’s hard to imagine having to deploy such resources on a confined space rescue in the middle of a riot – making this one of the more poignant firsthand accounts of firefighters continuing to focus on service above self while rioters pelt them with rocks and insults.

At an emotional press conference, the chief of the Richmond (Virginia) Police Department, William Smith, tells another fire-related story of imminent threat and how the police and fire departments had to work side by side to help save a child in a burning building – a building set on fire by rioters.

“Protesters intentionally set a fire to an occupied building on Broad Street. This is not the only occupied building that has been set fire to over the last two days. But they prohibited us from getting on scene.

“We had to force our way to make a clear path for the fire department. Protestors intercepted that fire apparatus several blocks away with vehicles and blocked that fire department’s access to the structure fire. Inside that home was a child.

“Officers were able to help those people out of the house. We were able to get the fire department there safely.”



As FireRescue1 has reported, firefighters have faced multiple threats during the civil unrest unfolding across the country: Two firefighters were reported injured due to protests in Columbia, South Carolina. Rioters threw fireworks at firefighters in Austin, Texas, and rocks at firefighters in La Mesa, California, firefighters. A Cleveland, Ohio, ladder truck had its windshield smashed by projectiles while responding on a call, while firefighters on the scene of a building fire in Atlanta had the windows broken out of their apparatus.

[Read next: Firefighters attacked, apparatus damaged during civil unrest]

Why it’s significant

Firefighters and paramedics are accustomed to difficult situations and dealing with the unknown; however, rarely does the community turn on the fire department with such widespread anger. Something is different with these 2020 events. While still battling COVID-19, now we’re facing a new unexpected enemy – and our lives are once again at stake.

As shown in the ever-present videos and social media accounts, police stations, courthouses, restaurants and businesses are burning. There is a sense of lawlessness across the country.

As a result, up to 10,000 National Guard troops are being deployed in Minnesota, with up to 3,000 authorized in Georgia and more troop deployments occurring in Illinois, Florida, Nevada and California. By contrast, the 2015 Baltimore riots over the Freddie Gray case resulted in the deployment of 2,500 National Guard troops in the city.

As I mentioned in a previous article, “Rapid Response: Protests prompt fire departments to consider their ‘must-saves,’” I joined with Baltimore City Fire Chief Niles Ford on the streets of Baltimore during those protests. While the community tensions were similar, and there was some damaged apparatus and hoselines, firefighters, paramedics and apparatus weren’t targeted to the same degree as our current situation.

There is a palpable difference five years later – likely and largely driven by the graphic and irrefutable video graphic evidence capturing the now-former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee pressing into George Floyd’s neck, as Floyd pleaded for relief.

All of this unfolds while COVID-19 continues to fester and grow in many parts of the country, now relegated to “old news,” which in and of itself may create future dangers as people switch their focus away from the disease, allowing complacency to creep in while following news of the violence.

Key takeaways

While we continue to grapple with the expansion of violence across the United States, firefighters will continue to find themselves the target of violence – sometimes unintentional, sometimes intentional. Fire department leaders need to have serious discussions with their members now, before violence spreads elsewhere.

Here are the key points of focus:

  • Chiefs all over the country need to ensure that identifying contingencies for protecting personnel, apparatus and equipment is paramount. Ballistic vests/helmets, shields and integration with law enforcement isn’t just a big-city issue.
  • Firefighters need to be empowered to make “no-go” decisions we would not normally make. If it’s physically unsafe, your procedures need to provide members the appropriate guidance to make those decisions on the fly.
  • Leaders need to consider Rescue Task Forces. Have you trained on Rescue Task Force concepts with your members and your local law enforcement agencies? We need to be postured to pull members back and out of harm’s way.
  • Similar to our posture at the height of COVID-19, fire departments must reduce the number of personnel you’re placing in harm’s way, emphasizing no single-person responses or operations, and minimizing large apparatus and groups where they’re not safe, protected or needed.
  • Fire departments should keep facilities in a COVID-style lockdown – nobody on the premises other than fire/EMS Department members, law enforcement or other government officials.
  • Departments need a plan – and then exercise the plan and be prepared for the unexpected.
  • As noted in my last Rapid Response article, leaders should ask these questions:
    • What are your protocols and contingency plans for crowd control and fire/EMS facility and apparatus security?
    • How far will your fire and EMS personnel go?
    • How far will you let law enforcement go, with your equipment?
    • Will you participate in multi-agency rescue task force operations?
    • Will your personnel wear body armor or body cameras (if you have them)?
    • What is a “must-save”? We will not be able to simply wait on the sidelines in all cases, so it’s important to know where lines are drawn.

What’s next: Observe, review and learn

The unrest shows little sign of ebbing, and firefighters and EMS personnel are facing another enemy they should never have to face. Chiefs and firefighters must be on high alert and prepared to make decisions that might not be so popular with some firefighters. None of us WANT to stand back and watch buildings burn, yet our experience has shown that may be where we find ourselves tonight.

[Next: Firefighters applaud Minneapolis fire chief’s safety focus during riots]

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