Rapid Response: Wis. FF’s death reinforces need to plan for violent events
Medical call turns violent, leaving firefighter dead, police officer and bystander wounded
The unimaginable tragedy of a firefighter being shot and killed in the line of duty has once again shocked our collective fire service conscience.
What happened: Appleton, Wisconsin, Firefighter Mitchell F. Lundgaard, a married father of three young children, was part of an Appleton Fire Department (AFD) engine crew responding to a medical call when he was shot and killed.
About 5:30 p.m. on May 15, the AFD, Appleton Police Department (APD) and Gold Cross Ambulance were alerted for the report of a man having a seizure on a bus arriving at the Appleton Transit Center. AFD arrived and began treatment of the 47-year-old male.
While details are still unfolding, what we know is that after treatment began, the patient left the bus and began to walk away. By this time, the APD was on the scene. The APD chief advised that at some point as the patient walked away, he displayed a gun and exchanged gunfire with the APD.
Four victims emerged from the mayhem: Firefighter Lundgaard and the original patient (the shooter), who both succumbed to their injuries at the hospital; a male police officer who was treated and released overnight; and a female bystander who was hospitalized and is in stable condition.
Why it matters – a growing history: The Appleton incident joins a growing course of discourse that finds first responders in the crosshairs of violence daily. The recently released body-cam footage from a 2018 incident in San Diego showed a fire department crew forcing entry, with police officers standing by, after the odor of smoke brought units to investigate. Police officers had attempted to raise any occupants before the firefighters in full PPE with SCBA forced the door. Immediately upon forcing the door, firefighters and police officers were met with a barrage of gunfire. A police officer and the gunman were shot. No firefighters were injured in that incident.
Additionally, in an incident that hits too close to home, on April 15, 2016, Prince George’s County, Maryland, Firefighter John “Skillet” Ulmschneider lost his life on an eerily similar forced-entry call, although the police department was not yet on the scene. A second firefighter, Kevin Swain was struck with three bullets, and the gunman’s brother was struck once. Swain and the brother recovered from their injuries. The gunman was placed under arrest and ultimately convicted on weapons charges (he has since died from natural causes). These firefighters answering a medical call were wearing street uniforms, with no protective gear.
The exact details remain under investigation; however, we don’t need any additional details to be able to reflect on safety and awareness for our first responders. Here are some initial takeaways:
- Prepare for the worst, any time, every time. As counterintuitive as it may be for firefighters’/EMS personnel’s nature to accept, and as mundane as the circumstances of the call may sound, we MUST approach every call as though it may be a threat.
- While the exact circumstances of this call will continue to unfold, the fire service needs to ensure that our firefighters are taught and trained on threat recognition and reactions. Study your overall battle rhythm, and make sure your tempo is keeping up with what it takes to survive these environments.
- While NFPA 3000 is generally thought of as a mass-murder/active shooter response guideline, it provides a strong basis for study, preparedness and response within your department, with your response partners, and with your community. Invest the time now in reviewing the standard and invest the money now in programs and training, before you’re investing in a LODD funeral.
- Make ballistic vests a mandatory priority purchase and part of your PPE now. While the analogy is generally applied to firefighting tactics and safety, it absolutely applies to our current operating environment; that is, this isn’t your grandfather’s fire department any longer.
- There are multiple families hurting right now in Appleton: The Lundgaard family first and foremost, the public safety family, and the community family. It is important to ensure that each of the families is provided the time and support necessary to grieve and cope in a manner that makes sense for them.
- It is critical that departments and chiefs have a plan for managing LODDs and significant injuries, ensuring that they get to the affected families as quickly as they can. The chief needs to do everything they can to reach the spouse and/or next of kin and wrap them in the department cocoon. They also need to be prepared for rejection of help. While unusual, there have been cases where families wanted no help from the department. One way or the other, the chief should assign a family and department liaison and be prepared to honor the family’s wishes, whatever they may be; after all, they’re your family too! Be prepared to ask and accept help. In the era of social media, the altruistic thought of the chief and chaplain being able to knock on the door before the spouse has already heard is a 1950s-era made-for-movies moment. Have a social media policy, have a next-of-kin plan, and practice notification processes.
In the AFD case, other jurisdictions (Oshkosh, Grand Chute and others) came to staff all of the AFD stations, so all AFD personnel could meet with and/or hear from Chief Jeremy Hansen at midnight. This is when Chief Hansen confirmed the death to his membership, a heart-wrenching responsibility that I don’t envy, but share the experience of having to do.
In a future article, I’ll share the aspects of grief and recovery that consume the chief and the department as you move through a line of duty death – in this case and in my own experience as chief, a LODD not by fire, but by gunfire.