Fire, EMS incident command: Dallas police shooting

One chief tells how quarterbacking an MCI with police fatalities changed her professionally and personally


Any firefighter, officer or medic worth their salt comes away from an incident with a better understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses. And when that incident is major, often the revelations are as well.

That was one of the lessons Dallas Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief Tami Kayea learned from her night commanding the fire and EMS resources sent to deal with "one of the worst tragedies in our history" when a sniper opened fire on police officers during a peaceful, planned protest.

Chief Kayea addressed the more than 200 who attended this month's annual Executive Fire Officers Graduate Symposium at the National Fire Academy about the night of July 7 when a lone sniper with a high-powered weapon took aim at police from a downtown parking garage during a Black Lives Matter march, killing five and injuring seven other officers and two civilians.

Battalion Chief Tami Kayea (Photo/Rick Markley)
Battalion Chief Tami Kayea (Photo/Rick Markley)

Chief Kayea was on duty at a station six blocks from the site when the shooting began. They set up a mobile command post and a 15-block perimeter around the site. They essentially had a small fire department operating inside the perimeter, she says.

Fire and EMS crews running calls within that perimeter did so without lights and sirens. And she instructed units coming in to don bunker gear and traffic vests to visually set them apart from police — Dallas Fire-Rescue wears a dark blue station uniform similar to that of police.

Looking back, Chief Kayea says she should have established the command post at the nearest fire station. That would have provided more space and better communication tools than what they had in the field. And, she says, they were so far removed from the actual incident that being in the field offered no advantage.

One problem that arose was that dispatch was updating information over the computer, which is located in the cab of the command vehicle. However, they had established command operations at the rear of the vehicle and eventually had to station one person in the cab to keep abreast of updates.

One of the more peculiar things to happen at their incident command post was a group of civilians Chief Kayea stopped from walking toward the hot zone. She told them to go back in the direction they came because the sniper had not yet been stopped. Two argued with her over if she had the authority to prohibit them from entering the hot zone.

What was learned
Chief Kayea says, "I made a lot of decisions that night, and using Engine 18 as command was the best." She specifically called for that unit to join her at command, knowing who was on shift at that time and knowing they were best suited to help her manage this large-scale incident.

The Engine 18 crew also had a fire explorer attached to it, which was certainly less than ideal. And the explorer's mother was a Dallas police officer. In addition to keeping the explorer safe, Chief Kayea set up communications to make sure both mother and explorer knew the other was safe.

And of course other emergencies, connected or unrelated, don't cease because there's an active shooter. Chief Kayea said they dealt with the expected medical emergencies, crowd injuries, an elevator emergency and a dumpster fire. They also had multiple reports of fires and bombs.

"Just because the shooting was going on, doesn't mean everything else stopped," she said. "Did they start the dumpster fire to draw us in? We didn't know."

There was a constant flow of information coming in, she said, and a lot of it was wrong. It was very difficult for dispatch.

Procedurally, the department had to choose between its active shooter plan and its civil disturbance plan, she said. They had both, but only about one-third of the department had been trained on the active shooter plan, and the civil disturbance plan had never been used.

They opted for the civil disturbance plan, which she says worked very well. Getting everybody trained up on the active shooter plan is a top post-incident priority, Chief Kayea said.

After the incident, Dallas Fire-Rescue treated it as though it were a firefighter line of duty death by waiting until after the officers' funerals to provide counseling and debriefings for firefighters and medics. She does advise chiefs to offer mental health services after the incident reports are done, because those writing the reports have to fully relive the event.

On a personal level, Chief Kayea says that she has struggled most of her career with self-confidence and doubt in her ability. But what that night taught her more than anything is that when it mattered, her years of training took over proving to herself that she's worthy of her bugles. 

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