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From Reactive to Proactive: Why We Must Address Active Shooter Issues Now

Those of us who chose the fire and EMS side of public service over law enforcement probably never considered we would need to be trained on how to respond in the event of an active-shooting incident. Active-shooter situations are left to law enforcement professionals, but we now live in a time when fire and EMS must be better prepared in the event we're first due.

We often hear of agencies being reactive instead of proactive, but tragedies are more like to result when we're being reactive. The goal is to learn and improve on future responses.

It's easy to dismiss tragedies with an "It won't happen here" attitude. But when you look at what's happened nationally—from Columbine to Virginia Tech, from multiple deaths at a movie theatre in Colorado to children in Newtown and first responders becoming targets—you can't simply ignore it.

The firefighters killed in Webster weren't the first to be targeted by a shooter. In 2004, a fire lieutenant was shot and killed and two firefighters wounded in a response to a domestic-violence call; in a separate incident, firefighters and paramedics were shot at. A paramedic was shot in the chest by an intoxicated man in 2006, a paramedic was shot while trying to render aid in 2010 and another was shot in 2011 in Pensacola.

Each year firefighters, EMTs and paramedics are exposed to violent patients. In my department, it seems on more responses we're staging until the police advise us the scene is secure.

It's now time to be proactive, not remain reactive. Simply and sadly put, you need to incorporate active-shooter incidents into your training curriculum.

You need to do it because the safety of our personnel is always our top priority. You need to do it because the incidents aren't as isolated as they once were.

You need to do it so you can work with local law enforcement to develop a safe and unified response. And you need to do it because someone on your department is asking, "What if…?"

With active-shooter training, we again need to address violent incidents. Do our people know how to keep themselves safe? Are we approaching every type of incident from a "we may be a target" perspective?

Size-up, most often talked about in structural fire response, is an important part of all our responses. We must first consider if a scene is safe for fire and EMS. Staging isn't in our DNA, and it's extremely difficult for some to wait until law enforcement arrives. However, we need to learn more from law enforcement; some general suggestions for size-up can be found in the guidelines of the Truro (Mass.) Police Department:

  • Determine if there's danger by the type of incident you're responding to; weigh statements about a history of mental illness, suggestions of committing dangerous or violent acts, loss of control, the availability of weapons.
  • Take steps to calm the situation, but recognize when you may have to back away and wait for law-enforcement intervention.
  • When possible, eliminate lights and sirens when approaching or on scene. Lights and sirens can further agitate some people or situations.
  • The volatility of the environment is particularly relevant; agitators who may affect the person or a particularly combustible environment that may incite violence should be taken into account.
  • Assume a quiet, nonthreatening manner when approaching or conversing with an individual.

The term active shooter is now a part of fire/EMS language. In his swearing in, Portland (Maine) Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria referenced that the city's first fire companies were organized in 1787, 10 years before the launch of the U.S.S. Constitution "Old Ironsides" in Boston. He noted that today's fire service "is not your father's fire department" and that we're now tasked with responses to hazmat incidents, technical rescues or weapons of mass destruction.

Do you think the members of those companies, or of Benjamin Franklin's Union Fire Company, or even of the cities and towns we work for would envision the need of active-shooter training. When I first started in the fire service on Cape Cod in 1977, I certainly didn't.

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