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Close call with armed patient prompts changes at Calif. fire department

A firefighter became trapped in a room with the patient who suddenly brandished a gun toward the four firefighters who were there to assist her

By Kevin Pearson
The Press Enterprise

HEMET, Calif. — When Steve Wilcox and the crew from the Hemet Fire Department rolled up to the mobile home on Sept. 20, it seemed like this would be just another ordinary call for one of the busiest fire departments in the area.

Dispatch had informed them that inside, there was a woman who had taken too many pills and was overdosing. There was no immediate danger and no weapons reported when the 911 call came in.

Moments later, Wilcox was reminded that no matter how ordinary a call might seem, anything can happen.

The firefighter, who has been with the HFD for just over a year, became trapped in a room with the patient who suddenly brandished a gun toward the four firemen who were there to assist her. Wilcox, without thinking, jumped on her, preventing her from potentially discharging the loaded firearm as the others escaped the room before he was finally able to do so himself.

As a result of what happened and the potential danger, the Hemet Fire Department has revamped its policy on its calls and will now work closer with the Hemet Police Department to ensure that the situation is safe before the fire department enters situations where its members could be put at risk.

“Any time that we, as firefighters, find ourselves on the wrong end of a gun, there has to be a better way to do it next time,” said Hemet Fire Chief Matt Shobert. “We look at it and fire out ways to prevent it and do better next time.”

And while Shobert says that his crew shouldn’t be leaping on loaded weapons on a regular basis, what Wilcox did may have helped save the lives of several of his co-workers.

On the day of the event, when the fire crew entered the bedroom, the patient began to yell that she wanted to die and to leave her alone. Having been in a recent automobile accident, she had taken too many pain kills and become irate.

To get closer to her, Wilcox had to go to the side of the bed opposite the door. When he did, she sat up with both fists outstretched, screaming that she wanted to die. Wilcox, a former paramedic who has gone on medical calls for eight years, told her the department was required to help her.

At that point, the woman reached on top of the headboard with her right arm and grabbed a loaded .45 caliber handgun with a bullet in the chamber and no safety on. She swung it from right to left, and two of the four firemen who responded exited the room, leaving Wilcox and a rookie who was on his first day on the job.

Wilcox quickly jumped on the woman, pinning the gun underneath her as he bear-hugged her from behind on the bed. The third fireman exited the room and Wilcox held the woman at bay until her husband — a Desert Storm veteran who told the department he had completely forgotten about the gun when he made the 911 call — switched places and held her down as Wilcox exited the room.

The Hemet PD entered the residence as Wilcox was leaving and the situation quickly subsided.

“It was scary after the fact,” Wilcox said. “There was no time to be scared at the time. I was just going off of adrenaline. But it’s a reminder that no matter what the call is, it can go badly.

“It really raised my awareness on scene. You get in a routine. It makes you realize you can’t just walk in with your head down, thinking it’s a person having trouble breathing. It can be something else going on, too.”

The woman’s husband came by the station later that day to apologize, informing the crew that the gun was there for one purpose — to kill potential intruders.

In the wake of the incident, the HFD is now working closer with the police department. Under the new, strengthened guidelines, fire crews will wait until police clear the area, whenever possible, even if that means waiting an extra few minutes on medical calls to ensure department safety.

“It’s the first call I’ve been on in nine years that turned out like that,” said Captain Eric Janert. “It took a turn for the worse in a matter of seconds.

“What ended up being a bad thing will end up being a good thing for the rest of the fire department, in terms of reassessing awareness.”

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