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Confrontations with the Public: How to Stay Safe

By Linda Willing

It’s something every firefighter will experience at least once in their career — handling an angry member of the public. Such confrontations can occasionally turn violent, making it vital to learn how best to deal with such situations.

Put yourself in this scenario:

You’ve just returned from a routine medical call and are about to start writing your report when the doorbell rings. The rest of the crew is out in the bay putting the engine back in service, so you answer it. You are immediately confronted by a very angry man. He rants, with much profanity and personal attack, that your fire truck nearly hit his car when you were backing into the station just now, and how stupid do you have to be to pull out right in front of someone like that?

You feel your blood pressure rise as the attack continues. You know that your engineer did nothing wrong — you had checked for traffic before pulling across the street to back in, and had your overhead lights on, as per standard procedure. But this man will not let it go. What should you do?

It is tempting to respond in anger, matching the man’s attacks, and thus escalating the confrontation. Anyone would be angry when unfairly attacked in this way, but such a response would do nothing to help and could create a truly dangerous situation.

Likewise, trying to defend yourself or argue the man out of his position is unlikely do to more than make him dig in harder. Remember, someone who would come to a fire station and go off in this way is clearly unstable and possibly dangerous. But you have to do something. Here are some guidelines for dealing with confrontational, unstable people, both on and off the emergency scene.

1) Immediately get backup. Never try to handle such situations alone. At the very least, you want a witness to what is occurring. So call a member of your crew on the radio or PA and ask that person to meet you by the front door. If on an outdoor scene, get the attention of another uniformed official. There is not only physical safety in numbers, but you want to be sure that you have a witness who can verify your version of events at a later date if necessary. Make sure that the backup person knows that you are directing the interaction and do not allow that person to escalate the confrontation.

2) Use reflective, active listening techniques to clarify the angry person’s grievance, and also to stabilize the situation. Such listening simply involves reflecting back the content and intention of the other person’s message. In this case, you might say something like, “So you’re saying that the fire truck gave no warning before it pulled out in front of you?” Not only does this kind of listening allow you to understand exactly what the person is concerned about, but studies show that active listening is one of the most calming things you can do with a person who is angry or upset.

3) Ask the person’s name, and use it when responding. Tell the person your name. Being on a first name basis with an angry person is beneficial in several ways. It personalizes the interaction, which may serve to de-escalate the intensity. It is much harder to be abusive to someone you feel you know, versus a nameless stranger. Even if the person refuses to give his or her name, go ahead and tell them yours anyway.

4) Observe carefully. What is the person wearing? How tall is he? Does he speak in an identifiable way? Does he have a vehicle with him, and what does it look like? Try to remember as much as possible, as if you were preparing to describe the person to a sketch artist.

5) Assume the person might be mentally ill, armed, and/or physically dangerous. Move slowly; do not give the person any reason to react suddenly or impulsively to your actions. Tell the person what you are going to do before you do it. For example, when you call for another firefighter to join you, tell the man, “I’m going to get the driver in here so we can figure out exactly what happened.”

6) Don’t hesitate to call for law enforcement if the situation does not quickly resolve itself. But do so in a measured way. You could tell the person, “It sounds like you are saying we violated traffic laws when we pulled across the street to back into the station. I think we should get a police officer out here to figure things out.” When calling for law enforcement assistance in such situations, be sure to emphasize that lights and sirens should not be used on approach.

7) Stay calm. In most cases like this, the angry person is not really dangerous and will back down quickly if you do not escalate the situation. However, you should always treat such situations as if the confrontational person is potentially dangerous — with calm, professional resolve, and never escalating things by treating it as a joke or becoming angry yourself.

No matter what the outcome of the confrontation, make sure you report it promptly and in detail. Call your immediate supervisor and report exactly what just happened. Then put it all in writing soon after the episode.

In the course of a fire service career, every firefighter is bound to have the experience of being confronted in an angry, inappropriate, and even potentially dangerous way. Prepare for such situations by learning skills and also by understanding that your job is to maintain control and keep people safe, including yourself. This mandate extends far beyond just the emergency scene.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.