A quiet revolution: How can we apply ABLE to the fire service?

Knowing how to intervene when a firefighter is going off the rails could save their career and protect the department’s reputation


ABLE – Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement – is a program that is gaining traction across the United States.

The ABLE program was officially created in 2020 through Georgetown University Law Center. Since its inception just over a year ago, more than 160 law enforcement agencies have signed onto the program.

The inspiration for this program came from an initiative adopted by the New Orleans Police Department in 2014 called EPIC: Ethical Policing is Courageous.

Through the use of practical scenarios and valid social science research, the new program, ABLE, promotes the skills and will for officers to intervene when they see another officer going down a dangerous path. Its goal is to change the culture of policing for the benefit of officers and those they serve.
Through the use of practical scenarios and valid social science research, the new program, ABLE, promotes the skills and will for officers to intervene when they see another officer going down a dangerous path. Its goal is to change the culture of policing for the benefit of officers and those they serve. (Photo/Getty Images)

Prior to 2014, the NOPD was, by its own admission, considered one of the most troubled law enforcement agencies in the country, as it was plagued by incidents of officer misconduct, mistakes and litigation. EPIC was created in conjunction with Loyola University and local civil rights leaders to address some of these issues.

Understanding ABLE

After the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, which was witnessed by three other officers who did not intervene, Georgetown University moved to develop a program to prevent such incidents in the future. Using the principles developed through the EPIC program, a national effort was launched to teach bystander skills to law enforcement personnel with three key purposes:

  1. Preventing and mitigating mistakes;
  2. Stopping and preventing officer misconduct; and
  3. Improving officer health and wellness.

Through the use of practical scenarios and valid social science research, the new program, ABLE, promotes the skills and will for officers to intervene when they see another officer going down a dangerous path. Its goal is to change the culture of policing for the benefit of officers and those they serve.

ABLE training consists of a one-day class for all law enforcement personnel that teaches strategies, skills and rationale for intervention with peers and colleagues. These classes are normally taught by in-house personnel who complete a weeklong train-the-trainer course through ABLE. Outside trainers are also available through a partnership with the FBI National Academy. All training and resources provided by ABLE are entirely cost-free to participants.

But those who want to be part of ABLE must make a commitment to be accepted. Every agency that applies must submit four letters of recommendation – one from the department head, one from the mayor or comparable governmental leader, and two from community groups with a stake in the outcome of improved policing. In addition, all participating agencies must commit to 10 other standards, including regular in-service training, the creation and support of an officer wellness program, and the appointment of an in-house liaison to the program.

The purpose of ABLE is not only to teach practical skills of constructive bystander intervention, but also to change the culture of an organization so that such intervention will be both expected and accepted. Historically in the emergency services, someone who might change the course of an event for the better and prevent harm is often silenced in the moment or shunned after the fact if they do speak up.

The fire service application

ABLE is designed for law enforcement personnel, but all the concepts it is built on apply equally to fire and other emergency services.

Firefighters may be less likely than law enforcement to have dangerous confrontations with members of the public, but it is happening with increasing frequency in recent years. Additionally, ABLE teaches skills that apply to individuals and groups in a non-emergency setting, such as in the fire station. Knowing how to effectively intervene when individuals or groups are going off the rails could save a firefighter’s career, in addition to protecting the reputation of a department.

The important third prong of the ABLE mission is improving officer health and wellness. Many firefighters have had the experience of seeing a coworker’s behavioral health change but did not know how to address it or what resources might be available to help. As a result, firefighters may descend into personal crisis and even violence before any action is taken to help them.

ABLE serves to institutionalize positive active bystandership. When ABLE is in place in an organization, individuals are no longer alone when deciding whether to act. There is an organizational ethic in place that action is expected, and that positive intervention is part of all members’ duty.

“No story to tell”

Active bystandership is a quiet revolution in the emergency services. As one ABLE leader said, “If you do this right, there is no story to tell.” The program seeks to redefine the meaning of loyalty and courage, giving people tools to make a difference when they are needed most. And isn’t that what being an emergency responder is all about?

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