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Human trafficking: What firefighters should watch for

Understand the different types of trafficking, the visual and behavioral cues to watch for, and what actions to take if you suspect trafficking


There are several steps fire and EMS personnel can take if they suspect an individual is the victim of human trafficking.

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By Lisa Rymshaw

As a first responder, you have unique access to people from all around your jurisdiction – and beyond. You enter people’s homes to render medical aid, you interact with them during the most difficult moments in their lives, and you see their behavior from a perspective that’s distinct from the average citizen. You are trained to help, you have access, and people trust you. These factors put you in a unique position to spot varying types of abuse, even human trafficking.

While you may be called to the scene of a domestic violence incident, human trafficking tends to run more under the radar – typically not the reason for the initial call. It is important to understand that while some human trafficking victims will find ways to reach out for help, many others simply can’t ask for help or, for their own reasons, won’t ask for help at that moment in time.

Consider these scenarios: You could be called to the scene for a fire, but you notice a young woman standing outside who is behaving strangely or being gripped by an older man. You might get a fire hazard tip about an apartment overrun with tenants or with boarded-up windows that block fire escapes, and realize there is something far more sinister going on.

Types of trafficking

In order to develop on-the-job human trafficking awareness, it is helpful for first responders to not only familiarize themselves with certain visual and behavioral cues that may indicate that individuals are being trafficked or exploited, but also to understand some of the ways that individuals are coerced or forced into trafficking in the first place.

International trafficking victims: Some individuals become involved in trafficking during the course of immigration from another country. Some are then forced into sex work or other types of labor in order to pay off the debt of being transported into the country. Others have never consented to being moved across borders, but they are told that they or their families will be harmed if they ever try to escape. In many cases, these individuals are children or teens, but they may also be adults.

Domestic trafficking victims: Trafficking by force can also occur via kidnapping by a stranger. In this modern age of social media, children as well as adults can get tricked into unsafe behaviors via online chatting, dating and even gaming. These behaviors can sometimes trap people into sex trafficking.

Some victims have been sexually exploited or sold by their own family members. In the case of children and teens, they may even have older family members who have taught them what to do. They are expected to work in this manner in order to provide for the household. As such, their family member is essentially acting as a pimp rather than having a healthy familial relationship with them. This confusion can cause the victim to have emotional issues for years to come.

At other times, a teen may have an abusive home life, so they run away. But they have nowhere to live and no job skills. On top of that, they may feel shame and low self-esteem due to childhood physical and sexual abuse. These teens are frequently preyed upon by sex traffickers, or alternately, by “sugar daddies” - much older men who give them a place to live and food to eat in exchange for sex.

“Romeo” trafficking victims: One of the most common ways that individuals are sex-trafficked is through romantic involvement. An individual meets a person who sees that they are vulnerable and/or impoverished, and that person then “wines and dines” them so that the individual believes they are in a committed romantic relationship. Unfortunately, this is not actually true. The so-called “Romeo pimp” convinces the individual to become involved in prostitution just a few times, for the financial benefit of the couple. Aiming to please their new significant other – who may also be the first person who has ever shown much interest in them – they do it. Before long, they realize that they are not the only person in the significant other’s life. Even worse, the significant other has stopped the wining and dining and is now treating the individual as property, forcing them into regular sex work. Frequently, the Romeo pimp is also abusing the individual physically, emotionally and sexually.

Signs to look for on calls

When first responders arrive on scene and have a gut feeling that something is off, there is often a good reason. And in the case of someone being trafficked or exploited, there are some signs that may be evident to first responders. While each of these signs can exist outside of a human trafficking situation, they should not be dismissed lightly.

Strange working quarters: One potential sign of labor trafficking is a person who lives at their workplace. If you arrive on scene and the individual lives within either an industrial building or a shabby little house on the grounds, take note. In addition, the workplace itself may have opaque or very high windows, and/or all of the windows and doors may be barred. If there is a supervisor present, the individual may be inclined to look at that person before speaking.

Branding tattoos: Many sex traffickers brand their workers with tattoos as a way to claim them as their “property” so that other traffickers do not attempt to use these individuals to make money. Tattooing is also a way of keeping their workers in line psychologically by showing them who is in charge. Many times, these tattoos contain dollar signs, crowns or bar codes. They may also contain names or local gang signs. Branding tattoos are typically found on the face or neck, and occasionally other areas of the body.

No I.D.: It is common for a trafficker to take away the identification of a labor-trafficked or sex-trafficked individual. If the individual states that they have no I.D., it may be helpful to casually ask who has their I.D. (for example, under the guise of medical treatment purposes). The individual’s response will likely convey whether they are fearful, anxious or avoidant of the topic. Observing responses is helpful in attempting to determine whether someone may be sex-trafficked. However, bear in mind that in cases of undocumented immigrants, fear does not necessarily indicate trafficking. It may just be related to their undocumented status.

Tough or defensive victim: It may be the case that a first responder is sent to assist with injuries that initially resemble a domestic violence situation. However, victims of domestic violence tend to be more timid and fearful, whereas victims of sex trafficking tend to be more tough and streetwise. And even when they are compliant to answering questions, sex-trafficked individuals tend to have responses that sound rehearsed. For example, they may avoid eye contact in a dismissive manner or answer questions with a mocking or bored demeanor. Sometimes, this behavior is due to the trafficker being within earshot. At other times, it is due to loyalty to the “Romeo” pimp, whom they still see as their significant other. In these cases, you may also notice that the individual is constantly texting someone to check in, as if they are being monitored to make sure that they are not revealing any information about being trafficked, or not planning to leave the trafficker via the first responder’s assistance.

Domineering partner on scene: When sex-traffickers are on the scene of a medical incident, they are often overbearing in regard to the victim receiving treatment, going to the hospital, etc. This one is a bit tricky, however, because the same is often the case in domestic violence situations, with the suspected aggressor being overbearing. In both cases, they tend to speak for the victim, instead of allowing the victim to give their own account. But one of the main differences in a sex trafficking situation is in the attitude toward the injury. Sex-traffickers tend to act a lot less nervous and guilty about the individual’s injury than a domestic partner.

Several adults in one residence: In a sex-trafficking situation, there are sometimes several people living in one residence. This can also be the case in a labor-trafficking situation, but it is tricky to determine unless the house is on the grounds of a business, as mentioned above. In the case of a response to injuries related to a domestic disturbance, one sign that sex trafficking may be occurring is that the other individuals who reside in the home involve themselves in a couple’s dispute, standing up for the alleged aggressor or dismissing the incident altogether. Often, these other individuals are part of the trafficker’s “property” as well, so it is in their best interest to downplay the situation.

Physical signs: Labor-traffickers and sex-traffickers typically do not provide their workers healthcare. This is particularly true in cases with undocumented individuals who are trafficked. Victims of labor trafficking are often malnourished, with threadbare clothing. Both labor-trafficked and sex-trafficked individuals often appear overly exhausted due to excessively long hours and physically demanding work. They may also have poor dental health. Additionally, sex-trafficked individuals often have untreated STIs, and they may be dressed in clothing that is provocative and/or inappropriate for the weather or the situation.

What first responders can do

There are several steps fire and EMS personnel can take if they suspect an individual is the victim of human trafficking.

Plan ahead with law enforcement

Establish a plan with local law enforcement for situations in which human trafficking is suspected. For example, if the suspected trafficker is with the individual, it may be dangerous to the individual as well as to the responders to ask questions related to trafficking. In such cases, there should be a protocol in place for covertly conveying to the dispatcher or to law enforcement that there may be a trafficking situation involved. Even in cases where the individual appears to be alone, a safety protocol should exist for assessment of potential danger.

In situations where the individual is alone, there are some questions that may be helpful to ask. Understand, though, that depending on their level of fear or anxiety, the individual may not answer them truthfully. These questions include:

  • What type of work do you do?
  • Do you have to give your money to someone?
  • Are you able to come and go as you please?
  • What would happen if you tried to leave?

Know your community partners

More and more hospitals are employing advocates for victims of human trafficking. Often, these advocates are survivors of human trafficking themselves, and they let victims know this so that they might feel more comfortable revealing their situation and their immediate needs. Find out whether there are any hospitals in your jurisdiction that offer this service.

Many communities also offer crisis or case management services specifically for trafficking survivors. Sometimes these services involve drop-in centers – facilities where individuals can stop in to receive assistance with practical things, such as food and hygiene products, as well as long-term assistance in diverting from their current situation. Other agencies offer housing specifically for trafficked individuals.

Collect information on local agencies such as these, and start to build community relationships with them. A trafficked individual may be more comfortable talking to someone in these agencies than to first responders. But use caution – this type of information should only be provided to the individual when they are away from the suspected trafficker.

Report your suspicions

If you suspect that a child is being trafficked, you can report it online to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children or call them at 800-THE-LOST.

For international trafficking, you can submit a tip to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security online at or call 866-347-2423. In addition, there is now a government program called the Trafficking Victim Assistance Program (TVAP), which assists both minor and adult victims who are nationals of other countries by providing them with complete case management services. Its website provides a map with locations to receive assistance in applying.

Further, if a trafficked individual does not speak English, they can receive help from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, an emergency referral service that assists by locating resources in the victim’s area. The hotline number is 888-373-7888. Via this hotline, victims can connect to interpreters in over 200 languages. TTY service is available (711). There is also a texting option in English and Spanish (233733). The National Human Trafficking Hotline also assists with referrals for domestic trafficking issues. However, because they are a busy national organization, it can sometimes take a bit of time for them to locate immediate services in your geographic area. For this reason, it is a good practice for your agency to have contact information on hand for some local organizations that provide services for victims of human trafficking.

About the author

Lisa Rymshaw is a former emergency dispatcher, currently working with survivors of human trafficking and exploitation in the Los Angeles area in conjunction with the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office.


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