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Fire and police scuffle: Tips for managing conflict among agencies

An unfortunate incident between agencies underscores the need to proactively work with outside agencies and build skills to mitigate conflict


Agencies must find ways to work together before they are tested on the emergency scene. They can conduct joint training, develop common programs and create ways for individuals to get to know one another outside of their official positions.

Photo/John Odegard

A Pennsylvania firefighter recently pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of obstructing emergency services and disorderly conduct. The charges resulted from a confrontation with a state trooper at an accident scene over the best emergency care for the patient. As a result of the incident, the firefighter lost his position, was required to pay fines and court costs, and now has a criminal record.

On-scene scuffle

The trooper had been the first to arrive at a possible DUI crash where the driver was trapped and two children were in the backseat. The uninjured children were able to exit the vehicle on their own, but the trooper, who determined that the driver might have overdosed on opioids, chose to break the front passenger’s window to access the patient. It was around that time that the firefighters arrived at the scene.

The firefighter told the troopers that extricating the patient was the fire department’s responsibility, and the trooper responded by telling the firefighters that they could leave the scene.

The firefighter took issue with the fact that the trooper did not cover the patient before breaking the window, and the trooper ordered the firefighter to leave the scene or he would be arrested. This led to the firefighter shoving the trooper, and the trooper taking the firefighter to the ground and handcuffing him. Criminal charges were subsequently filed against the firefighter.

Meanwhile, a patient desperately needing Narcan and treatment remained in the wrecked car.

How did this situation escalate so dramatically?

I know I am not the only one who wonders how things could have gotten to this point related to a routine emergency response. It seems unlikely that things just suddenly went so irrevocably bad between these first responders. More likely there was history in play as well as the emotions of the moment. This conclusion is backed up by the fact that criminal charges were filed and prosecuted.

If the people involved had just lost control in the heat of the moment but there was no underlying animosity, it is most likely that cooler heads would have prevailed after the fact, and the situation could have been de-escalated. Instead, the trooper chose to make the confrontation a matter of permanent record for the firefighter involved, undoubtedly further damaging relations between the two agencies.

FDNY and NYPD: Independent operations on 9/11

Conflicts between law enforcement officers and firefighters are nothing new, and they are not unique. Firefighters also sometimes have disagreements with other crews and other fire departments, as well as with those from other agencies. But because police and fire so often respond together to calls, the opportunity for problems to arise between them is greater.

It can also have greater consequences.

In the example above, a firefighter lost his position and now has a criminal record. On a larger scale, the lack of a good working relationship between police and fire in New York City on 9/11 almost certainly contributed to problematic communication and poor coordination that ultimately put first responder lives in danger.

How can law enforcement and fire personnel avoid damaging conflict and work better together, for their own benefit and the benefit of those in their care? The first critical point is to recognize that good relationships must be built and invested in over time.

In New York City on 9/11, there was no open animosity between police and fire. That had happened in the past. By that morning, the two agencies had accepted a norm of working separately, to the point of operating different command posts and keeping communications exclusive to their agencies.

Even if police and fire had wanted to fully cooperate in New York on 9/11, it was virtually impossible for them to do so. They were operating under the assumptions and practices of years of personal and organizational history. You can’t build relationships on the fly, in the moment when you need them most. That work must be proactive and far-reaching.

Mitigating conflict: Invest in the long term

It is inevitable that individuals and groups will have differences that lead to conflicts at times. The key is to find ways to minimize those differences by focusing on common ground and effectively mediating conflict when it does occur.

Agencies can find ways to work together before they are tested on the emergency scene. They can do joint training, develop common programs and create ways for individuals to get to know one another outside of their official positions. Those in leadership roles must set the tone by talking to one another, treating the other with respect, and always emphasizing the common mission.

When conflict does occur, everyone must have the tools to mitigate it, both for their own sake and especially for those in the community who are in need of help. In the Pennsylvania incident, medical care was delayed because of an interpersonal dispute (the patient was ultimately treated and did recover). Personal conflicts can never interfere with why first responders are on the scene to begin with.

Training in conflict management and de-escalation techniques for all emergency responders can give individuals knowledge and skills to use when things are spinning out of control. Leaders can be trained in mediation skills, and outside services can be brought in if necessary.

If a bad event does occur, it should be the goal of all agencies involved to communicate immediately, apologize as necessary and otherwise mediate the dispute.

Perhaps most importantly, all individuals in all emergency response agencies must understand their role in fulfilling the larger mission of the work they have chosen to do. Building effective working relationships with others who may be different is a critical part of the job. Agencies and individuals must be proactive and invest in the process for the long term.

It is not something that can be done in the moment when you need it most.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.