Blurring the Blue Line

As more and more active shooter incidents occur in our country, our nation’s first responders continue to be the first line of defense and care for those who tragically fall victim. Tactics and strategy have evolved with several iterations of policy, table top exercises, and injects from data of the latest incident. This real time evolution has brought police officers, firefighters and EMS personnel to a whole new level of response when called upon to an active shooter incident. Today’s response is a far cry from the tragedy of Columbine High School that took place nearly two decades ago where a more methodical approach to locate and take out the target was considered a best practice. Today’s response has swung the pendulum in an entirely new direction where first arriving law enforcement immediately go after their target to reduce more harm. Quickly trailing behind the law enforcement “hunters and killers” searching for the target are the fire and EMS personnel who are now wearing ballistics and entering onto the scene with force protection to begin treatment and rapid extraction of the wounded.

This change in response may seem like fine tune adjustments for your local law enforcement officers. They train with weapons and learn the difference between “cover and concealment” from the day they enter the academy. A good officer has learned that their threat is an intelligent one. They identify suspicious activity and pick them out in suspicious settings for self preservation. A good officer picks up this skill-set and it becomes part of their way of thinking, on-duty and off-duty, every day for the rest of their life.

A seasoned firefighter on the other hand has an entirely different developed set of skills. Firefighters are taught building construction, hazardous materials, the art of reading smoke to determine what is burning and how a fire will behave. They learn technical rescue skills and how to apply them to the most complicated of scenarios. The threats that firefighters face are very prevalent on the job, but are non-intelligent threats. When a firefighter is injured on the job, it’s usually because they calculated a hazard incorrectly or applied the inappropriate solution to a complex problem. It isn’t however very common that they were faced with a person who intended to do them harm. In fact, the job of being a firefighter is highly dependent on the public’s trust. Firefighters are usually flagged into a violent scene or an overdose, not to question the individuals and attempt to begin collecting evidence. They merely want to find their patient, identify injuries and begin transporting them to the nearest hospital in hopes of a successful outcome. This act is usually performed from city to city without any interference of impeding their job.

Now flash forward to present day response to active shooter incidents. Firefighters across the country have been asked to don ballistic helmets and vests and enter into a “warm zone” where the shooter is still on the loose. This is done with law enforcement force protection, which means police and fire departments have learned to move through the scene as a rescue task force. Their mission: locate the wounded, begin rapid treatment and remove the victims to increase their survivability. This activity has been supported by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, the National Fire Protection Association, the Hartford Consensus, the Department of Homeland Security, the Interagency Board, and many other subject matter experts.

Over the past four to five years, fire service has incorporated these new tactics into their training regimes because this is the new normal. Has anyone paused to asked, what are the possible consequences of moving the mission of the firefighters and EMS personnel just slightly into the realm of law enforcement? Once tactical training has saturated the fire service and EMS personnel with law enforcement response, do the lines of where they can now go and what they can do change?

The Department of Justice defines an active shooter incident as “an individual engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.”[1] This is a very unique set of circumstances that is transitioning training for all first responders in this country. Is a city risk manager approving the purchase of millions of dollars of ballistic attire for the fire and EMS personnel going to begin to require them to wear it on more than just the rare instance of an active shooter incident? Or even further but not out or reach; are fire and EMS personnel going to begin to respond more aggressively into active incidents because they now have an increased level of protection?

Blair and Schwiet conducted a study that analyzed the statistics on past active shooter incidents. The study indicated that a shooter will leave the scene prior to the arrival of any law enforcement response 15% of the time. In addition, 13% of the time, the shooter has been taken out by citizens and an additional 1.2% of the time off-duty law enforcement officers take out the shooter. In 10% of the cases the shooter will commit suicide upon the arrival of the first officers and in an additional 13% of the time they are taking out by the first arriving officers. By this simple historical perspective, the shooter is either dead or fled 90% of the time within the first 10 minutes of the incident unfolding.

All good emergency responders, police, fire or EMS, have one thing in common. They risk a lot to save a lot and they are dedicated to a service they that they’ve made a promise to carry out. Whatever the evolving threat becomes, I’m certain that the future will continue to force this evolution of emergency responders and time will only tell what the future holds as they carry out their mission at all costs.

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