Shootings and Being Shot At

It is one matter to be a soldier and fly into a hostile area expecting to be shot at.
It is an entirely different matter to be a firefighter and shot at while trying to fight a fire.

The tragic death of Firefighter Ryan A. Hummert [1] is something that cannot be critiqued in a NIOSH report. It cannot be trained against at Firehouse Expo or FDIC. Even if you were to search for information about firefighters and shootings, you would find that the great majority of information is about responding to the shooting incident; not about being shot at during a vehicle fire. Enter “shooting” into the National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting site’s search field and you find one report where “shooting” refers to being shot at with a firearm [2]. There is no preparation against the unknown criminal element yet to happen. It (being shot at, assaulted, etc.) makes for exciting reading as described by Dennis Smith, Harry Ahearn and other “war years” authors. It also is a means of defining the type of fire department you may be part of by defining the neighborhood you work in. The photographs of the old Mack engines with the wire mesh in the jumpseat windows, or the open cab tillers with plywood covering for protection are always interesting to look at. These are all simply reminders, informal recording of history, of a percentage of society that expresses itself in violent ways. Reading through the various stories prior[3] and following Hummert’s murder, fire departments are once again asking themselves, “should ballistic vests be issued?” The current opinions are equally divided. First is that this was a very random act and committed while responding to a truck fire, so why would you need body armor? The second is that shootings, especially at public safety personnel (excluding law enforcement) are becoming more common and not limited to the “ghettos”. They both carry weight and we would have to look at the numbers to see if the violence is on the increase or if it just reported easier and more frequently. Departments that do want to provide body armor will now have another item on their want list to try and obtain grant money for [4]. Either way, the best defense for now will be to expect anything and everything on every single run.

  • When responding to assaults, shootings, stabbings and other violent EMS incidents, be aware of the police presence. If your department does not have a level of safe staging, then consider waiting outside of the hundred block without your emergency lights running, until you have confirmation that the police have the scene under control. Keeping the lights off doesn’t draw attention to you or confuse responding PD of the incident location.
  • If you are provided with body armor, wear it. Who cares what the others think of you, and the ribbing you might get.
  • Most firefighter work clothes are as dark and similar to police uniforms, especially at night. Consider wearing your helmet and your running pants, to help the shooter distinguish you from the police officers. This also helps the police officers distinguish you from a possible suspect, if you respond in street clothes.
  • Wearing your helmet may also deflect a indiscriminate round. It’s better than a ball cap.
  • When approaching a private dwelling or apartment, especially ones known for violence, never, never, never stand in front of the door. Stay to the side when knocking and be sure to say “Fire Department” loud and clear.
  • Be very aware of who is in the apartment with you and what exactly is down that hallway. If possible, and this might not fly with most everyone, but I’ve done it and felt better, have the patient walk out to the living room, or close to the doorway. If your ambulance is running with more then three (volunteer companies mostly) then have one person stay by the door, with a radio. If you’re a two-man EMS crew, and things don’t feel “right” call for an assist. The more of you, the less likely someone will try something.
  • When working shootings, even if the police are on the scene, be aware of your surroundings. Shooters have been known to return. Just like we work on the roof with our back to the ladder, work with your back to the exit. Don’t allow yourself to be in between the criminal and the police.
  • Most bystanders, friends and family are going to be fueled with passion, emotion and rage, at such incidents. They will not be thinking clearly and will be trying to rush you. Try to remember it is not personal. Don’t let yourself or members get distracted and begin arguing with them. This will only fuel the fire. Keep your head about you.
  • Be familiar with firearms, so that if you have to secure one on a scene quickly, you can place the safety on and empty the rounds without hurting yourself or anyone.
  • Finally, when in doubt and things “don’t seem right” or it looks like a setup, then move out and make sure you call for assistance (documentation, “in preparation of litigation…”). Remember, you didn’t put the victims there. You’re responsible for you and your crew first.

Photograph of Trenton, NJ Engine 9 after being shot at while returning to quarters. Note the “Everyone Goes Home” sticker. Photograph courtesy Michael Ratcliffe/The Times

What the future might bring the fire service, regarding these repeated random acts of violence, is to consider:

  • will violent acts be justification for increased staffing (“safety in numbers”) as well as augmented response assignments?
  • is simply staging in a safe area enough?
  • will the ‘traditional” fire service look to tactical EMS for training?
  • what department will be the first to let exposures burn after being fired upon (remember MOVE in Philadelphia?) what are the resulting legal ramifications?
  • will requests for body armor be reviewed along with the exisisting law enforcement capabilities in your area?
  • will PPE manufacturers begin developing current roadway/safety vests incorporated with Kevlar or other body armor?
  • will apparatus manfacturers play on fear and design bullet-proof features?
  • can families of firefighters killed or injured by shootings and/or assaults sue the department for failing to protect the fallen if there is a history of such events happening?
  • will firearm safety and use become a NFPA requirement?

Lock and load

1. “
Friends, Family Remember Fallen Missouri Firefighter” July 2008
2. Report Number: 08-0000080. National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System.
Event Description. The initial responding EMS Crew asked sheriff deputy “is it clear” to rear of the school shooting scene. It was a chaotic time and manpower management needs were occurring. The deputy stated “it’s clear” ushering fire rescue unit into direct line of live fire exchange. Medics were compelled to grab critically injured patients and visually triaging out dead under return fire. Personnel were able to make it off scene without injury or damage to crew. Lessons Learned. Different terms mean different things to agencies, individuals, and under different context. Local police use terms for stable/no life threat. The deputy thought fire wanted to know if it was physically clear for truck access. Priorities of known GSW victims requiring aid versus personal safety of crews continued to be in play.
3. “Fire engine is hit by bullet during ride back to quarters” STATter 911 June 2008

4. “Bulletproof vests – the next PPE for firefighters? Jamie Thompson, Fire Rescue 1
“Recognizing this growing risk to our responders is one of the factors that led me to apply for a Fire Act Grant this year under the PPE category for ballistics vests for all of our on-duty personnel. It is a sad statement but I believe active shooter situations have become common enough that firefighters and other emergency responders should have benefit of the same bulletproof protection that our brothers and sisters in law enforcement enjoy. A bullet proof vest should be considered the same as SCBA, medical gloves, a helmet or a bunker coat; just another PPE tool.” Chief Dan Jones, Chapel Hill, NC Fire Department

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1 Comment

  • George Wendt, IAAI-CFI says:

    A couple of other things to think about.

    1. If you are wearing body armor, make sure you stay properly hydrated. You will lose alot of ody fluid while wearing body armor and participating in physically strenuous activity.

    2. “Arming” fire fighters would not have prevented this tragedy.

    3. Another way to distinguish FD from PD is a huge, bright yellow patch with the word “FIRE” on the back of the shirt.

    4. Firearms are not the only threat. Edged weapons are as big of not bigger of a threat. Body armor provides protection against this threat, but it is more limited.

    5. Going home in the same condition as you arrived is THE most important thing.

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