Since its inception, the fire service has continually redefined its knowledge base to respond and mitigate any call for service. The fire service is very different from any other public or private agency. We do not have one specialty. We never say, “Sorry you have to call someone else,” when someone dials 911 and asks for help. We respond and solve the problem regardless of what type of event it may be.
Think back to when the haz-mat push hit the fire service. If you told a firefighter in the 70’s that he or she would be donning a level A chemical suit to enter a toxic, volatile environment, the standard reply would be, “I’m not going in there. That is not safe. I am a firefighter we don’t do that”. Well, guess what… We, as the fire service, not only “go in there” we have perfected hazardous materials response and have highly qualified firefighters across the nation that handle these incidents with the utmost professionalism and safety every day.
How did we do that? It was accomplished through planning, preparation and training by proactive fire departments led by officers who answered the need to serve their community. They educated themselves, researched the subject, planned appropriately and obtained funding to train the firefighters. And they continue to increase their knowledge through research, training and field experience.
This is also very similar to the change in EMS. What firefighter is the 60’s would agree to administering pre-hospital medication though an interosseous needle that is “drilled” into a patient’s leg? Or utilizing surgical instruments to cut through a patient’s neck to secure their airway? Or direct a needle through their chest wall to expand a patient’s lung? Once again, to meet the challenge, we planned, prepared and trained.
Now fire medics save thousands of lives each day, haz mat teams mitigate incidents each day and yes, we still fight fires and rescue civilians from the fire environment. Why do we do this? Because we are the fire department and we don’t say no! If a citizen calls, we respond and do whatever is needed to mitigate their emergency regardless how bizarre it may be.
Let’s fast forward to 2014.
It is common for us to respond to incidents where we will lace companies into staging until the scene is rendered safe for us to enter. Incidents such as EMS calls involving violence. We expect our first responders to make sure the scene is safe before entering. Another example is in response to active shooter incidents. The unfortunate reality is that mass-shootings are becoming prevalent today. So the question exists if our response is the best and appropriate option. While the jury is still out, it seems like the fire service will yet again be expected to respond and go right into action in an active shooter incident.
Similar to the changes of the past, many are saying, “I’m not going in there. That is not safe. I am a firefighter not a cop we don’t do that”. Well ladies and gentleman, let me say it again. We are the fire department and we don’t say no! There is a new focus, a new thought process to mitigate these incidents appropriately. This focus involves moving faster to treat victims, which follows an earlier shift in thinking about how quickly the police should respond. After Columbine, law enforcement officials made it clear that they wanted the first officers on a scene to act immediately, instead of waiting for specially trained officers with body armor and high-powered weapons.
This new response process pairs first responders up with the responding law enforcement community to enter the incident immediately. While the officers enter to neutralize the suspect(s), the EMS responders would be stabilizing patients as they move forward. This patient stabilization would start immediately, sometimes before a suspect is neutralized.
Recently FEMA released new guidelines related to active shooter responses that have been embraced by state and local officials. They have highlighted concerns about the risks to first responders, and about whether response times for victims would grow even longer if medics were wounded in a danger zone. They have also raised the specter that terrorists may target the first responders as they have in Iraq. In recent years, the Qaeda affiliate there have frequently detonated a car bomb and then, as medical personnel arrived, set off others.
General President Harold Schaitberger, who leads the International Association of Fire Fighters in Washington, said his organization played a role in creating the new guidelines and strongly supported them if employed correctly. The association represents 300,000 firefighters, paramedics and others. Trying to save victims in "warm zones," Mr. Schaitberger said, "is a different risk for firefighters, but not more of risk than firefighters already take in responding into a burning structure."
Chief Mitchell, US Fire Administrator, said the gunmen and terrorists who mounted attacks in the United States over the past decade rarely made targets of first responders. But, he said: "We know that this possibility does exist, and part of the training of the fire and E.M.S. is to be observant and aware.
My biggest concern is not that if we can or cannot handle this new focus. There is no doubt in my mind we can handle anything that is asked of us. However, the fire service supporting this new mission is not my concern. My concern is chief officers receiving support from local and federal elected officials to fund these initiatives. Too often we see elected officials cutting back on funding for the fire service. We see firehouse closures and reductions in staffing. And yet we still see the same organizations being directed to do more with less. This too is not new to the fire service!
We as the fire service can not shy away from this new mission and call for service. Remember, we are the fire department and we don’t say no! However we must plan, prepare, train and fund the training necessary. We must plan to fund the continued training and team sustainability, so we are effective into the future. If you can’t do that, do not place firefighters into these environments without the necessary and appropriate training.
The fire service can and should adapt to this new focus. We will continue to do what the American fire service has done since day one. Adapt to the ever changing environment and answering the call from our citizens regardless of the nature. But, we must stand up for our safety and assure that departments do not shoot from the hip and put in place poorly planned policies that are not strongly supported through training and proper equipment.
To learn more, follow this link to the FEMA study.