By Robert Tutterow
Last Christmas Eve’s Webster, New York, firefighter ambush that killed two volunteer firefighters and wounded two others once again brought the subject of violence against firefighters to the forefront. This incident was one of a growing number of acts of violence against firefighters. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) statistics reveal that, on average, there are three firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) annually from assaults. It is estimated that there are well over a million assaults against firefighters and EMS personnel annually in the United States. Anecdotal evidence also indicates that more than 90 percent of firefighters have been verbally or physically assaulted.
If you are a firefighter reading this column, you can probably recount one (maybe several) assaults. Violence against firefighters is not a new thing.
Thirty years ago, I responded with my volunteer fire department to a reported vehicle fire at an auction barn in rural North Carolina. It was an early Saturday evening, and an auction had just started. On our arrival, the fire had been extinguished. However, people were running out of the auction barn screaming, “He has a gun!” The owner/auctioneer came out of the barn and threatened all of us volunteer firefighters. We stood still, remained silent, let him vent, and then it was all over.
This situation was perhaps unique in that we all knew the owner/auctioneer. He was known as “Dud,” and he liked alcohol and women. Apparently, he had a little too much of at least one of his two life pleasures that evening. I don’t think any of us felt his threats were sincere, for he had a generous side. Dud was a well-known character who always carried a lot of money-and a gun. He never hesitated to peel off a few bills from the roll of cash he carried during fire department fundraisers. Nonetheless, this incident gave me pause to think how a similar situation in a different setting could have a bad outcome.
The fire service collectively acknowledged violent acts against firefighters in 2004 when the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) issued its 16 Life Safety Initiatives. Initiative #12 states, “National protocols for response to violent incidents should be developed and championed.” The issue is also addressed in NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program. Chapter 8, “Emergency Operations,” has a section titled “Scenes of Violence, Civil Unrest, or Terrorism.”
Acts of Violence
Acts of violence can occur in many ways. The Webster ambush was staged by the assailant setting his house on fire. In 2004, the Lexington (KY) Fire Department lost a firefighter when she was shot during a domestic dispute. Firefighter/EMT Brenda Denise Cowan was in the yard providing aid to the wife of the assailant, whom he shot. She was also the first black female to die in the line of duty in the United States.
In 2008, a Maplewood, Missouri, firefighter was shot and killed at the scene of a vehicle fire by an awaiting sniper. Twenty-two-year-old Ryan Hummert, son of the former mayor, was on his first fire call. The sniper also shot and wounded two police officers.
In the Aurora, Colorado, theater mass shooting in July 2012, the shooter had booby-trapped his apartment to kill emergency responders through an array of ignition systems, chemicals, and a trip wire.
Some of you may recall that many of the tillered aerials in Los Angeles had to be removed from service during the riots following the Rodney King trial in 1992. It was apparent that the tiller person was a sitting duck for rioters.
And, violence against firefighters can occur at places other than an emergency scene. Seventeen years ago, a Jackson, Mississippi, firefighter shot and killed his wife and then went to the central fire station, where he opened fire during an officer’s meeting, killing four chief officers.
As this is a publication about apparatus and equipment, are there apparatus and equipment ideas that might prevent death and injury to firefighters during violent incidents? Misguided or not, the Sandy Hook, Connecticut, mass killing has focused more on the equipment-guns-rather than human behavior as a means of prevention. Maybe the time has come for a discussion about providing armored fire apparatus. I’m not suggesting military- or police-type armored vehicles for entry or mitigating a violent situation. I am thinking about a deployable device-either separate or integral-to the cab that can provide a measure of protection for refuge and escape when firefighters are unexpectedly attacked. An armored fire apparatus might not have saved the lives of the firefighters in the incidents just described. However, one of the Webster firefighters who died was shot while he was still in the cab.
This idea is somewhat similar to the chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) protection option in NFPA 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting. The CBRN option provides a minimum amount of protection against CBRN for firefighters who suddenly discover they are in a CBRN environment and need the protection while they escape.
A place for refuge and escape just might be appealing for a growing number of emergency calls. Maybe the smart people can figure this out. From all indications, violence against firefighters will increase. Armored fire apparatus is a far-fetched idea … or is it?
ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).