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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Nine Questions to Improve Situational Awareness and Preparedness for Violent Incidents

By: Mark E. Brady, Chief Spokesperson, Prince George's County, MD, Fire/EMS Department

Another violent incident involving the response of the Fire/EMS Department ended without any firefighter/paramedics safety ever being in jeopardy in College Park early on Tuesday morning.  This incident comes on the heels of  two recent incidents in Prince George’s County, MD, including a double homicide in New Carrolton where a suspect was alleged to have set an apartment on fire while barricading himself and his two victims in the burning apartment and an incident where a shooting victim was dropped off on the ramp at the Ritchie Fire/EMS Station.  Of course, the tragedy of firefighters being ambushed in Webster, NY, is still fresh in the minds of public safety officials everywhere.  Tragedy after tragedy, massacre after massacre; firefighters, paramedics and incident commanders are committed by duty to act and perform in situations where a violent act is in progress or has occurred.

In this morning tragic incident the first due station was alerted at around 1:00 am, Tuesday, February 12, 2013, for a shooting in the 8700 block of 36th Avenue in College Park.  As firefighters and paramedics from Branchville were still en route to the original shooting incident that involved a college-aged student suffering from a gunshot wound to his rear torso other firefighters from College Park and Berwyn Heights were alerted to an outside fire at another location in the 8700 block of 36th Avenue.  The two incidents were dispatched just 2 to 3 minutes apart.  The outside fire assignment was soon upgraded to a structure fire as additional information indicated a possible fire inside the house.

Firefighters responding to the fire incident arrived not to find a raging blaze but found two additional college-aged males suffering from gunshot wounds outside the house.  One patient located in the front yard was treated and transported to a nearby Trauma Center where he was pronounced deceased a short time after his arrival.  The second victim, found in the backyard, presented with a fatal gunshot wound and was pronounced deceased on the scene.  The original reported shooting victim was treated and transported to a Trauma Center where he will survive his injuries.

A small fire was found in the basement by the egress door resulting in little to no damage.  Police accounts indicate the victim found in the backyard had allegedly set the fire and once outside opened fire on his two roommates and then took his own life.  As police work out the details of the incident and possible motive, incident commanders and firefighters of all the aforementioned incidents should reflect and critique their response and determine if anything could have or should have been done differently.

While none of our personnel were injured or placed into harms way other then what we normally deal with in battling a structure fire, each incident should be reviewed, knowing the facts of each incident as we know them now, and use these as teachable moments in situational awareness.  Consider the "what if" in each of these incidents.

As these tragic events demonstrate, not every violent incident can be anticipated.  The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) report that fire, EMS, and law enforcement experts agree that being prepared can often make a difference.

The NFFF is joined by the IAFC, CFSI, NFPA, and NVFC in an effort to get fire chiefs, company officers and firefighters to ask critical questions that will help evaluate a department’s ability to effectively deal with a violent situation. Nine Questions You Should Ask is the work of Chief John Oates of East Hartford, CT, based on the report from a focus group of fire, EMS and law enforcement leaders held last year in Baltimore. That report has identified 14 National Recommendations to identify potential risks and stay safe.  The full report is available here. 

Below is a summary of Nine Questions You Should Ask

Detailed information on the questions and resource material, including the final report, are available here

Nine Questions You Should Ask

1. Do you use risk/benefit analysis for every call?

2. Do you have an effective relationship at all levels with the law enforcement agencies in your community?

3. How good is the information you get from your dispatcher?

4. Do you allow members to “first respond” directly to the scene?

5. Does your law enforcement agency use an incident management system?

6. When responding to a potentially violent incident, do you seek out a law enforcement officer when you arrive?

7. Have you told your fire officers/personnel that it is OK to leave the scene if things start to turn bad?

8. Is there a point where you don’t respond or limit your response to violent incidents?

9. Is your uniform easily mistaken for law enforcement?

I believe every firefighter/medic can agree that situational awareness is important on every call and should become a regular routine in how you prepare yourself and your crew to respond to the increasing demand for emergency fire and emergency medical services including violent incidents.