How firefighters can win the 'Citizen Jerk' battle

Like other emergencies, planning for the irate civilian will lead to a positive outcome

This past summer, a bicyclist slapped a firefighter who tried to stop her from passing a fire truck that was backing up. The woman was arrested and charged with aggravated battery on a peace officer.

This incident reminded me of something that happened to me and my crew near the end of my fire department career. We were returning from a call and backing into the station. The overheads were on and the firefighter was spotting for us in the street.

A car drove up as we pulled across the street, hesitated when the firefighter motioned for him to stop. He then swerved around the firefighter, passed behind the engine and drove on down the street. As he drove behind us, the engineer hit the air horn as a warning.

We commiserated about what a jerk he was as we backed into the station, and thought nothing further of it. Then few minutes later, I was in the office writing the report from the call and there was a loud knocking on the front door.

Thinking it was a citizen reporting an emergency, I opened the door to be confronted by the driver of the car, swearing at me loudly and gesturing wildly. He yelled that we had “blown out his eardrums” with the air horn.

I was alone in the room. The first thing I did was call for another firefighter to join me in the office.

The man continued his abusive rant. At that point, I got on the telephone and called dispatch. I told them that we had a person at the fire station who needed to speak to a police officer, and could they please dispatch someone to the station immediately.

“What are you doing?” the man asked, not yelling now. I calmly told him I was having a police officer respond to deal with his complaint. This got the man’s attention. The next thing we knew, he was running out the front door.

Like any other emergency

All firefighters will experience something like this at some point in their careers. Dealing with angry people is something you can plan and be prepared for, and through preparation, be in control of the situation.

The first and most important rule for dealing with irate, out-of-control people is to stay calm. Don’t take it personally and don’t respond in kind. Try to see the angry person as just another emergency incident you must handle in a professional manner.

Next, if you are alone, get a witness. If you are in the station, call for a co-worker to join you. If you are out in public, call over a co-worker, a police officer or another uniformed person.

There is safety in numbers, and not only physical safety. From a liability standpoint, you want to be sure that you are not in a situation later where it is just your word against the other person when dealing with what was said and done.

Be clear and straightforward with the angry person. Don’t argue. Tell them what you are doing as you do it. If there is some misunderstanding that led to the other person’s anger, then simply explain the reason for what you are doing.

During emergency response, be sure you are following standard policies and procedures and continue doing what you need to do. For example, if you are responding to a vehicle fire and a bystander becomes verbally abusive because he thinks you are taking too long to put water on the fire, ignore him and continue with firefighting protocols until the fire is under control. Then explain as necessary what you did and why.

Have a plan

It can be useful at times to understand the perspective of the person who is upset. If it’s your house or car that is on fire, three minutes can seem like an hour.

Sometimes people behave badly because they are stressed, and acknowledging that stress can sometimes go a long way toward calming them down.

Most importantly, plan these incidents with your crew. What will you do if an angry person comes to the front door of the station, confronts you during a fire inspection or starts screaming at you on an emergency call?

How and when will you involve law enforcement in these incidents? What is the expectation of law enforcement officers in helping to manage irate bystanders? In the case of the bicyclist, police were called and made an arrest at the scene.

Preparation will allow you to stay calm, remain professional and keep yourself and your crew safe, even when confronted by a person who is seemingly out of control. 

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