Tactical withdrawal: When firefighters must evacuate dangerous scenes

It’s not always the big incidents that cause safety problems for fire service personnel


When you think about the term “tactical withdrawal” in relation to the fire service, what comes to mind? Many immediately picture personnel evacuating a burning building during a fireground operations. Others may think about backing away from a scene after discovering some sort of hazardous materials involvement.

While those are both types of withdrawals, they aren’t technically tactical withdrawals. A tactical withdrawal is one that takes place to remove personnel from a scene that has become violent or that poses a direct threat of violence to department personnel.

As we have seen over the past few years, our personnel are becoming increasingly engaged in violent incidents – or in seemingly benign incidents that rapidly turn violent. As such, all fire departments need to plan for the worst, train for these scenarios, and ensure firefighters know the procedures to follow if they are required to retreat from a violent scene.

Cleveland Fire Department Ladder 23 was out of service after being struck with bottles and rocks while responding to a fire downtown.
Cleveland Fire Department Ladder 23 was out of service after being struck with bottles and rocks while responding to a fire downtown.

Civil unrest serves as a reminder

Encountering violence is nothing new to the fire service. After all, we regularly find ourselves dealing with the aftermath of violence directed at others. However, fire personnel are increasingly finding themselves dispatched to scenes where there is potential for the violence to be directed at them. Just a quick glance of the news headlines from the last few months clearly illustrates this trend. [Read next: Firefighters attacked, apparatus damaged during civil unrest]

During the recent incidents of civil unrest happening across the country, we witnessed rocks, bottles, fireworks and even gunfire aimed at fire apparatus responding to calls. We’ve heard of firefighters being assaulted while doing their jobs. While we can’t prevent these events from occurring, tactical withdrawal training and procedures will give your firefighters a solid plan for addressing the issue as safely as possible.

Many firefighters don’t work in areas where there is a likelihood of civil unrest, mass shootings or gang violence – but there are other scenarios to consider that require knowledge of tactical withdrawal procedures.

Every fire department responds to calls that have the potential to turn violent for the responding personnel. Have you ever been cursed at or threatened by a bystander who thinks it took too long for you to arrive? That happens all the time and is usually deescalated quickly. But what happens when the person gets a few others together and they end up hampering operations or threatening violence on the crew? A well-understood tactical withdrawal procedure may make the difference between your crew being able to move to relative safety and being injured.

Seemingly benign calls can change at any moment

As we all know, we often respond to calls that are much different when we arrive on scene than what was described in the dispatch. Sometimes, this is caused by a lack of knowledge of the incident from the caller. Sometimes, it can be more sinister.

For example, just about everyone in the fire service has answered a “person down” call – and it can be almost anything. It can be a person who fell and just needs help getting up. It might be a person in cardiac arrest. Maybe it’s a person that has not been “up” in days and is long deceased.

Generally, those calls are not going to turn violent. But consider the following scenario: You respond to the call for a “person down,” and someone meets you at the front door and points in the direction of your patient. As your crew is moving into the house, someone asks what happened and the response is “she got shot.” Surprised by the answer, you inquire further, “who shot her?” The person that called 911 and is currently standing between you and the door looks at you and says, “I did”. Now what? Does the guy still have the gun? Has anyone else been shot? Are there other people in the house? Firefighters need to have regular training on these types of calls so they know the appropriate action to take next.

In case you’re thinking, “That’s a little far-fetched of a scenario,” that’s what I thought, too – until it happened to me. Take it from someone who has lived that type of stressful incident: It’s not just about getting away from the scene ASAP. It’s about considering the safety of your crewmembers and making sure they know what is happening, as well as the safety of the patient and public.

As you can see from that short story, not all incidents that may require a tactical withdrawal are clear from the beginning. Sure, when you’re on duty and you know that there is civil unrest happening in or near your response territory, the thought of having to perform a tactical withdrawal is probably already in your mind. However, there is a very real possibility of having to do the same thing on nearly every call you answer. You don’t need to be paranoid; you need to be prepared.

Tactical withdrawal do’s and don’ts

Now that we’ve covered some instances where a withdrawal may be needed, let’s hit the do’s and don’ts of tactical withdrawals.  

Before arrival: Sometimes, you may need to withdrawal from the scene before you even arrive. This type of tactical withdrawal will most likely take place when there is a known or obvious threat of civil unrest in the area. When the responding members perceive a situation that has already turned violent or is very likely to become violent, the decision may be made to alter the response while units are still en route.

When this happens, the officer or member in charge of the apparatus ordering the withdrawal must be sure to notify the communications center and all additional apparatus of the situation. The situation report should also include directions for responding units to either change their response to a designated safe staging area or cancel their response altogether.

On the scene: Most tactical withdrawals will take place after units are on the scene. In these cases, crews are usually engaged in either firefighting or EMS efforts when the situation turns violent or members are otherwise threatened.

If the incident commander (IC) or a ranking supervisor makes the decision to perform a tactical withdrawal, the communications center must be notified of the situation. If time permits, the IC can give details over the radio.

At this point, we are really concerned with accountability. A tactical withdrawal in this situation is similar to what would happen if you were working on a structure and the roof suddenly collapsed on interior crews. Each supervisor needs to confirm with the IC that all of their crewmembers are accounted for and safe. When just one unit is involved on a call, this is a rather straightforward process. The supervisor or officer tells everyone to get back on the rig and they leave for safety as a unit.

On scenes where there are multiple units working, the tactical withdrawal becomes a little more challenging. If multiple units and crews are working, there is often a bunch of tools and equipment on the ground. Ideally, all of that stuff should be retrieved to prevent not only a loss of equipment to the department, but also to prevent those items from being turned into weapons and directed at personnel. Members should not be worried about loading things up nicely at this point. Just get it on the rig and get moving. Grab it if you can, but leave it if you have to.

When the IC makes the decision to initiate a tactical withdrawal, they should also identify where the units should take refuge. This should be a staging area that is at a safe location away from the scene. When possible, all of the units on the scene should withdraw together, as a group. If that isn’t feasible, units should try to get together to form the fewest and largest groups and then withdraw in those groups. Remember, there’s safety in numbers.

What’s next: PAR

Once the IC believes all units have withdrawn, it’s time to conduct an initial personnel accountability report (PAR) to confirm that units and crews have performed the tactical withdrawal and are headed to safety.

After all of the withdrawing units have arrived in the staging area, the IC should perform a second PAR to maintain accountability of all personnel and apparatus.

If either PAR results in unaccounted for personnel, emergency procedures should be initiated, including notifying the appropriate law enforcement agency and determining the last known location of the missing personnel. Essentially, you address someone missing in this situation the same as you would following that roof collapse at a structure fire we talked about earlier. It’s a mayday situation. The radio channels are cleared, the rescue attempt stays on the current channel, and the rapid intervention crew (RIC) is deployed. The big difference here is that the RIC is probably going to be law enforcement or a tactical SWAT, instead of a company of firefighters.

Assuming that both of the PARs were completed without incident and no personnel are missing, what comes next now that all the units are in a safe staging area? Remember all that equipment that just got tossed into the cab, thrown up on the hosebed or wedged in the back of the ambulance? This is a great time to get things put back together so they can be rapidly deployed when needed.

Now is the time

The best time to consider policies and procedures is before you actually need them. The recent civil unrest is a good reminder that fire service personnel are not immune from being involved in violent incidents. If your department has a tactical withdrawal policy, now would be a good time to review it and even have a drill on how they should be performed. If you find your department doesn’t currently have a procedure in place to address tactical withdrawals, this is a great time to get the ball rolling to develop and implement one – and get training!

What do you want to learn about mass violence response efforts? Submit a question for the FireRescue1 editorial team to answer in a future article.

And watch a short video on tactical withdrawal by Lexipol co-founder Gordon Graham:

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