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Rapid Response: Fatal shooting leaves fire service asking ‘why?’

Consider scene security, extra precautions for calls involving violence after fire captain dies in attack on responding firefighters


Firefighters salute as a van carrying the body of Long Beach Fire Capt. Dave Rosa passes them during a procession.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Every emergency response by firefighters and other public safety personnel is always a venture into the unknown. Read more about how that unknown is becoming increasingly violent; and how firefighter shootings are not common and cannot be treated as such in analysis from our industry experts.

The news of the death of Long Beach Fire Captain Dave Rosa and the wounding of firefighter Ernesto Torres has everyone in the fire service asking “why?”

First, this assault has left a veteran firefighter dead and we grieve for him, his wife and two children. We also want to support the second wounded firefighter and his family. But why did this happen? Aren’t we the “good guys” – we come to anyone’s aid no matter what the hour, who is in need or what the circumstances are. Don’t people know that we are there for them to render aid, not judgement, during the worst day of their life?

What happened: Preliminary news coverage appears to show that the Long Beach shooting occurred as firefighters arrived for the report of a fire in a multi-story apartment complex. Long Beach officials have reported a 77-year-old man set a fire to lure firefighters to his Southern California retirement home so he could shoot them.

Why it’s significant: Captain Rosa is not the first firefighter to die in an ambush like this incident. In 1998, a Toledo Fire Lieutenant was shot and several others injured while responding to the hospital with an assault victim, when the attacker rammed the first of two medic units and fired several rounds from a shotgun at close range at the firefighter/paramedics in an attempt to kill the victim of his initial assault.

In 2012, four Webster, N.Y., firefighters were shot when they pulled up at the scene of a house fire set by the assailant to lure the firefighters onto his property. Two of those firefighters died and two others recovered. And just recently, a Cincinnati Fire District Chief’s vehicle was struck by a bullet while responding to the report of a fire.

Top takeaways on fatal firefighter shooting

Here are my top takeaways from the fatal firefighter shooting:

1. Take extra precautions on calls involving violence

Besides being diligent, what can we do? Do we wear a ballistic vest all the time? Obviously, that answer is no, but we can take precautions on calls such those dealing with shootings, stabbings, domestic violence, assaults and robberies. Certainly if your department has invested in ballistic vests, these are the types of calls where their use should be mandatory.

2. Consider scene security, through nothing can prepare you to face gunfire when you exit the apparatus

What else? Is the scene secured? Does the scene “look right” or is something out of place? What might your senses be telling you?

All of that is hard to equate while responding to the report of fire when all that is going through your mind is the size-up – starting with the information available on dispatch to the pre-plan of a high rise where there might be a serious fire with extensive life hazard implications from the potential number of occupants. Nothing other than perhaps a premises history could prepare you adequately for facing gunfire as you exit your fire apparatus.

What happens next? We will continue to respond today, tomorrow and the next day and the next, but we should all follow the Long Beach investigation for any motive as to why this murder took place, and to keep a watchful eye for any clue that may avoid such another tragedy anywhere in these United States.

Stay safe.

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.