Shots fired! Near misses highlight unexpected dangers

Violence against first responders requires constant vigilance on the scene


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By Brad Van Ert

Incidents involving violence against first responders are on the rise. The numerous reports submitted to the Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System emphasize the dangers we face on even seemingly mundane calls.

The following reports – which highlight two very different types of scenarios we might face – are meant to encourage you to increase your level of situational awareness and learn from the experiences of others.

While returning to the station, a fire engine was struck by a bullet, as reported in Near Miss report 6425. (Photo/Near Miss)
While returning to the station, a fire engine was struck by a bullet, as reported in Near Miss report 6425. (Photo/Near Miss)

Type 1: Violence known or expected

The first type of incident is one in which we are aware of a potential threat beforehand. For example, we may be responding to a domestic abuse call or an active shooter incident. Upon arrival at these calls, we would typically be instructed to stage away from the incident until law enforcement can secure the threat. These events allow us additional time to plan and maximize safety precautions to protect our personnel, although it can still be a very volatile situation, as seen in the following report.

“A local ambulance service, along with the local law enforcement agency responded to a call where one subject stated they had shot their significant other who had been ill. The ambulance service arrived at the same time as law enforcement and staged about a half-mile away, waiting for law enforcement to secure the scene. As the law enforcement officers approached the residence in their patrol vehicles, someone inside the residence fired a single shot, which struck a patrol officer’s vehicle. The patrol officer radioed for backup, retreated and established a perimeter. Additional law enforcement officers from the initial responding agency, as well as another local law enforcement agency, arrived and reinforced the perimeter.

“Approximately 30 minutes into the incident, at least two more shots were heard from within the residence, followed by a hissing sound, which was followed within seconds by an explosion that lifted the roof of the residence. Within seconds, this explosion was followed by a much larger explosion, which threw debris up to 400 feet away. The concussion wave was felt by the incident commander (IC) and the ambulance crew, which was located a half-mile away. Two law enforcement officers received minor injuries when they were thrown by the force of the explosion.”

Read the full Near-Miss ReportMultiple shots fired at medical call.

For these types of incidents, we should have a heightened sense of caution from the beginning. Dispatch can alert us to potential threats and keep us posted regarding locations where there have been problems in the past. Policies and procedures should be in place to address how we interact with law enforcement, the use of appropriate PPE, and places to take cover if the threat escalates. It is vital that we communicate and train with our neighboring fire, EMS and law enforcement agencies so that when these events occur, we have a better understanding of each other’s capabilities and the ability to work with one another in the safest manner possible.

Type 2: Violence on seemingly “routine” calls

The other type of incident we may face is the seemingly “routine” call where we arrive on scene, and without warning, suddenly find ourselves in a dangerous situation. These are the calls that highlight the need to ensure that everyone on scene remains alert and observant to anything unusual, as seen in the following report.

“An EMS crew arrived at the address of a reported cardiac emergency. The location was a restaurant, and two of the EMTs entered to look for the patient. They were approached in front of the business by a woman who seemed intent on asking questions about our response, and she kept stepping in front of the firefighters to slow them down.

“The patient was finally located outside, near a drive-through window, was assessed, treated and prepared for transport by the EMTs. While they were doing this, the dispatcher made an urgent request for the captain to contact them by telephone. The captain made the call and was told that people inside the restaurant were armed and dangerous, and the police department was responding to an unrelated call to make a felony arrest.

“The police department had been setting up for the arrest before the unrelated medical emergency occurred. The fire dispatcher overheard the police dispatcher talking on the police tactical channel and realized the medical response was at the same location and contacted the fire-medical crew to get them out of the danger zone.

Command relayed the information to the medical crew, which quickly loaded the patient and left the area.”

Read the full Near-Miss Report: EMS response turns into unforeseen dangerous situation.

These are the types of calls that will catch us off guard and force us to react quickly to ensure our safety. We must strive to avoid complacency and tunnel vision, even on a call that seems routine. The responsibility to ensure our safety falls to every member on scene, not just with the company office. Everyone should feel comfortable in the role of a safety officer, even the newest trainee. Always be on the lookout for anything that seems abnormal. If you see something out of the ordinary, say something. Situational awareness is paramount!

Your violence awareness and preparation plan

Violent incidents are something we must always be prepared for, as we may not get a second chance to get it right. It is critical that our everyone on our crew is aware of their surroundings and the potential for violence at all times.

Assign your members to read the full near-miss reports above. Then discuss the following four questions:

  1. What is the best way to alert other crewmembers when we notice something is not right? How do we do this discretely?
  2. What resources do we have at our disposal to protect ourselves?
  3. What options do we have when a dangerous situation suddenly presents itself?
  4. What procedures are in place to request additional help?

Following the initial discussion, engage in the following three training activities to help prepare your crew for the unique challenges posed by these dynamic events:

  1. Assign each member to find a different incident where first responders have encountered a threatening situation. Discuss the similarities and differences in each incident. Review the lessons learned.
  2. Schedule a meeting involving responders from fire, EMS, law enforcement and hospital staff. Establish a committee to facilitate interagency coordination in the event of an active shooter or other terrorist event. Review agency policies and revise if necessary.
  3. Plan drills involving all potential participants. Start small with tabletop exercises and work up to full-scale drills with actors using different locations and scenarios.

Stay safe on shift

Studying these types of reports in the Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System can help us learn, not just from the mistakes of others, but also from what went right and what worked. By doing so, we can increase our ability to remain alert to anything that may happen while we perform our daily duties.

Check out the Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System for similar reports or to share your own story to protect the next shift!

About the Author

Brad Van Ert has 39 years in the fire service. He served for 32 years with the City of Downey (California) Fire Department as a firefighter, paramedic, captain, training officer, and EMS coordinator. He is now the EMS Division Chief with the Northern Lakes Fire Protection District in Hayden, Idaho. Van Ert earned a bachelor’s degree in occupational studies and a master’s degree in emergency services administration at California State University, Long Beach. He has been an advisor with the IAFC Near-Miss Reporting System since 2005.

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