A united front: Coordinated efforts are essential during mass violence events

Fire crews must work with EMS, police and other agencies to prepare and prevent independent operations that could compromise responder safety


The alarm comes in as a possible fight with injuries. You and your crew board your engine and respond as requested.

While en route, dispatch notifies you that they have now received several 911 calls reporting that there is a large crowd at the location, many are injured, and law enforcement has been dispatched as well.

As you approach the intersection of the alarm address, you see a massive group of people gathered and blocking the road. Law enforcement is arriving at the same time and begins to exit their vehicles and approach the group.

The one big question that always surfaces at mass violence incidents: Who is in charge? Further, who establishes and prioritizes the immediate incident objectives? (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
The one big question that always surfaces at mass violence incidents: Who is in charge? Further, who establishes and prioritizes the immediate incident objectives? (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

As you instruct your driver where to stage the engine, a young women appears at your door with her boyfriend who is bleeding from a laceration to the side of his head. She is screaming for you to help them.

A loud noise draws your attention from the woman to the windshield of your engine that now has a crack in it from top to bottom. At the same instant, your driver yells that some guy just threw a brick at the truck. You hear the sirens of two private EMS transport units arriving behind you, and your mind races to decide what to do next.

While some may believe this sounds farfetched, I assure you that this scenario could play out for any fire and EMS agency, particularly as we face dynamic challenges involving disputes over coronavirus and, more recently, civil unrest.

[Read next: Firefighters attacked, apparatus damaged during civil unrest]

Coordinated efforts and incident command

The one big question that always surfaces at such incidents: Who is in charge? Further, who establishes and prioritizes the immediate incident objectives?

With multiple departments arriving on-scene – fire, law enforcement (which could be county and state), EMS and even local emergency management – we must ensure there is a coordinated effort to keep everyone on track and safely operating to meet the objective. We cannot work independently and be successful at any event, and this type of emergency most certainly requires that structured coordination.

Adrenalin and uncertainty drive these types of scenes, and being unprepared to work together as one can only hinder response efforts. It’s rather easy to arrive on scene and get pulled down into what I describe as the task-level operations and remain there, solely focused on the one task when other things are already happening and new problems are surfacing.

Someone, or a small group, must find a way to control the scene and provide direction. This begins with dispatch providing as much information as possible to all first responding units. This allows those resources to begin developing a plan of action and start establishing potential objectives while still en route.

They should also start considering other agencies and how they would communicate with them while on scene. Just because you have the latest and greatest portable radio doesn’t establish radio protocol between different departments, so this must be worked out long before anything like this arises.  

As soon as the very first responding unit arrives on scene, whoever it may be, that unit should begin by establishing a fixed command location and sharing details with other units about the emergency. This could even be a district fire inspector who just happened to be around the corner and is now at the location. That one inspector, even though they may not be prepared to handle the event, can gather additional important information about the scene to pass along to the next incident commander (IC).  Something as simple as information-gathering can be huge when dealing with violence-related events.

Once an IC has taken control of the event, they should begin to identify and prioritize tasks that will need to be handled to mitigate the overall event. If there is no direction, resources will begin to self-deploy as they arrive. Those resources have good intentions, but lack of coordinated direction will hinder the total effort if they are not careful. It may sound basic, but everyone responding to any event should be prepared to plug into the system, unless they are the first-arriving unit, which as stated above would establish command and begin to organize the incident.

In a hazmat awareness class, the most basic thing you learn is to identify the hazard and develop a plan. The same applies here. However, there will be several different departments, and all may have different priorities. This is where the unified command piece comes into play. Fire, police, EMS and any other agency operating on scene must have members working together and sharing critical information at the strategic level as soon as possible. It is doomed to fail if everyone is not working toward the same established and communicated goal.

Take time to back up and evaluate what’s happening, what resources are available, and what resources will be required. Consider the many different components that make up an intense and powerful scene like this, and gather the departments as they arrive to develop that inclusive plan. Make every attempt to keep members at the strategic level, thinking of what can happen, and then assign resources tasks as required to check them off the list.

It is often difficult for some to see beyond their own training and what they believe is their job at this type of event: “Well, we are fire and that is a law enforcement incident, so we don’t need to get involved.” I am not telling you that firefighters should perform police duties, but we should communicate with police to ensure that we are supporting their efforts in every way possible until the incident is over and command is terminated.

How many times have we looked around for another agency to realize that they had already left? They had completed their job and just left, working independently, when they should have stayed and focused on the mitigation of the entire event – that working together thing again!

[Read next: Tips for ICs managing high-risk/low-frequency incidents]

Training together

An incident that escalates rapidly requires all responding agencies to work together, and that occurs when everyone understands this principle well before the alarm comes in. And, of course, this goes back to training – and training with all agencies that could be involved.

This can be accomplished by bringing the many departments together to lay out their own incident objectives in a controlled training environment and to ask for feedback and comments from other departments. Departments should conduct tabletop exercises that includes every agency and department that could be involved. Some will gain knowledge and offer to allow others to learn more about their own objectives and how they work to meet them. Everyone benefits from training and will be able to perform better at an event from it.

The real question

The question really isn’t “Who’s in charge?’ but rather “How can we help make it all work?” A unified front is what we should focus on during the incident and during training as well.

Stay safe and train hard!

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