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Thwarting violence against firefighters and medics

Violence against emergency responders is an old and ugly problem, but preparation and awareness can keep you safe

A few years ago the humanitarian-aid group International Fire Relief Mission went to Papua New Guinea to deliver a container of donated firefighting equipment. The group reported that firefighters in that country were in constant danger.

The danger came from tribes and clans using fire to burn out their enemies. When firefighters arrived on scene, the fire setters would pelt them with stones if they attempted to douse the fire; those affiliated with the burning structure would also throw stones if the firefighters did not put out the blaze.

Sounds crazy, right? It is, but violence against firefighters and medics is nothing new, nor is it confined to developing countries.

If you’ve never done so, type “firefighters attacked” into your Internet search field — the results are unsettling. Stories about youth lobbing rocks at fire engines in Manchester, England; firefighters being attacked at a house fire in Hawaii; Alabama A&M students attacking firefighters on campus; a Los Angeles firefighter being stabbed on the job; and thieves in California using pepper spray on firefighters while trying to steal an apparatus are a small sample of the search results.

The problem is serious enough to have made it into the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s 16 Life Safety Initiatives. Initiative 12 calls for a national protocol for responding to violent incidents.

A white paper on the initiative goes on to outline safety recommendations:

  • Improve understanding and application of Dynamic Risk Management
  • Initiate or improve communication with the local law enforcement component
  • Define and expand role of dispatchers in reducing risk
  • Prohibit single (person) resource response to violent incidents
  • Require use of an Incident Management System
  • Communicate directly with law enforcement component prior to operating at an incident of violence
  • De-commit personnel and equipment and leave if violence commences or reoccurs during fire department operations
  • Obtain stakeholder understanding and buy-in of response and deployment policies including non-response and non-engagement at incidents of violence

The National Fire Protection Association also addressed the issue in its 2007 version of NFPA 1500. From that guideline come these recommendations:

  • Fire department members shall not become involved in any activities at the scene of domestic disturbance ... where there is ongoing violence without the confirmed presence of enforcement personnel who have deemed the area secure
  • The fire department shall (develop) an interagency agreement with its law enforcement agency counterpart to provide protection for fire department members at situations that involve violence
  • Such violent incidents shall be considered essentially a law enforcement event
  • At such incidents the fire department incident commander shall communicate directly with the law enforcement incident commander In such violent incidents, the fire department incident commander shall stage all fire department resources in a safe area until the law enforcement agency has secured the scene
  • When violence occurs after emergency operations have been initiated, the fire department incident commander shall either secure immediate law enforcement agency protection or shall withdraw all fire department members to a safe area.

In Monday’s FireRescue1 newsletter, we ran a column by Lt. Dan Marcou, a regular contributor to our sister publication Police1 and an expert in police training. Lt. Marcou stressed the importance of situational awareness and understanding indicators that a subject may turn violent.

To get more advice on how firefighters and medics can protect themselves against on-scene violence, I reached out to Dave Smith. Smith is also an internationally known police trainer with more than 30 years of training experience under his belt — he’s also part of the Police1 stable of experts.

Smith advises that upon arrival, watch for unruly, intoxicated or disruptive people on scene. He also cautions to look for those who are milling about and not attending responders’ arrival (as most subjects do) and to involve police if the patient has been attacked by a weapon.

“Survey the whole scene as you arrive,” Smith said. “Who’s present, and what is their behavior? What weapons or potential weapons are on scene? Are things not adding up based on your experiences? If it feels wrong, trust your gut.”

A friend who rode with a private ambulance company in a high-poverty area said one of his warning signs came at the front door. If when he knocked and announced his presence, the response was, “hold on a minute,” he went back to the rig and radioed for police back up.

If subjects begin to show signs of aggression, Smith said, remind them that as a firefighter or medic, you are there to help. He also said to give disruptive people tasks, such as traffic control, to distract them.

“If violence is being threatened, remind them you are not the police,” he said. “You are there to help, not arrest, but back out of the scene.

“Look for defensive implements if necessary. Chairs, kits, extinguishers, etc., make good spontaneous defensive tools. Stay together if you need to back out of a situation.”

Once an assault begins, Smith said, the best way to minimize any injury is to overcome the aggressor as quickly as possible or disengage and gain distance from assailant.

“Disengaging is always the first choice if de-escalation has failed,” Smith said. “Talk then walk. Fight only as a last resort. Even in law enforcement the principle of winning without a fight is an optimal goal.”

If fighting is the only option, then hit fast and hard.

“No one has a right to hurt you, and the quicker you win, the less risk of injury to the assailant as well as you,” Smith said. “If a conflict occurs and you gain control of the assailant, make sure you stay alert to secondary threats and get law enforcement there as soon as possible.

“Always have the mindset that in a crisis you will win.”

Violence against emergency responders is one of the more universal and ugly aspects of the job. It is not an issue that can be solved through legislation, but you can mitigate incidents through preparation.

Rick Markley is the former editor-in-chief of FireRescue1 and Fire Chief, a volunteer firefighter and fire investigator. He serves on the board of directors of and is actively involved with the International Fire Relief Mission, a humanitarian aid organization that delivers unused fire and EMS equipment to firefighters in developing countries. He holds a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s of fine arts. He has logged more than 15 years as an editor-in-chief and written numerous articles on firefighting. He can be reached at