Packing heat to fight fires – Guns in the fire service

IMG_0045-2Time to talk about a touchy subject, and it worries me more than a little.

Are you ready?  The subject is “Dead Firefighters/EMTs.”

That’s it.  I’m going to talk about the only fear most first responders have in regards to the job.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are loads of other things that we stress over.  Exponentially higher cancer rates than the general population, cardiovascular disease, debilitating injury, exposure to communicable diseases, suddenly realizing your greasy breakfast has given you a case of Mississippi mud butt right about the time you open up a line on a rocking kitchen fire.  These are all things that worry us.

I don’t want to be avenged.  I want to go home.

But the thing we fear the most is failing to make good on our promise to come home to our families.  There is no amount of training and no type of equipment that can account for every eventuality.  But we CAN equip ourselves, to the best of our ability, to deal with as wide a variety of situations as possible.

In the last few years, there have been some incidents throughout the country that highlight a glaring gap in our plans to go home at the end of the day.  These situations usually involve what starts as a “routine” call. (Yes, yes. I know there is no such thing. Just let me finish, ok?)

The “routine” call can suddenly escalate into a fight for the lives of the fire/EMS team against either an ambush by a mentally unstable individual, an aggrieved family member, or even a terrorist attack.  Such situations are typically resolved by the police who, once the distress call is sent out, rush to the aid of their brother firefighters or EMS personnel.  I’m thankful for our men and women in blue.  Unfortunately, by their arrival, the damage has been done. Whether it’s  a severely injured first responder, death, or even a hostage situation.

It has to stop.  Firefighters and EMS personnel need to be permitted to carry the tools necessary to protect against such eventualities.  With newer types of PPE (personal protective equipment), training on active shooter situations, and finally… guns.

Yup.  I said it.  GUNS.

Does that make you uncomfortable? Good. Because, as an officer tasked with the safety of his crew, it makes me more uncomfortable than a puppy shitting peach pits.

Those of us in the Fire/EMS community routinely travel into the same neighborhoods as the police.  For the most part, dispatch will apprise us of any conditions that are out of the ordinary.  But they don’t always have all the information. And it just isn’t practical to divert a PD unit to every trash fire, illegal burn, medic run, drug overdose, and cat-up-the-tree run that comes in.

Where does that leave us?  For starters, how about options for ballistic materials in firefighter PPE?  That’s a passive option to which few people would object.  But we are still left with the elephant in the room.  GUNS.

Firefighters are not LEO’s.  We aren’t usually as part of any authoritarian machine tasked with arresting people or hunting down evil doers.  And we don’t want to be.  There are plenty out there who are undereducated or uneducated enough not to be able to tell the difference between a firefighter badge and a police badge.  There are also the situations where a group of friends or family of the victim (or the victims themselves) get violent.  It usually stems from them not understanding what we are doing, and they get mad.  It happens.  Then there are the wackos who just want to hurt someone.

In all these situations, we have a group of people who arrive with the intention of helping and shit goes sideways.  I can tell you, in the majority of the cases where the situation goes south, I get a bad feeling the moment we arrive on the scene.  Something just isn’t right.  But since there’s no evidence to validate that gut instinct, we just push past it and tell our crew mates to watch our backs.  Usually, that works.  We de-escalate the situation or subdue the aggressor and go on about our business.

A vigilant crew is helpful, but it can only go so far if we are faced with a person who has a weapon.  In that situation, you need a tool that can end a threat fast.  

Could we call PD with a mayday?  Sure.  They will take the witness statements, catch the dirtbag who killed you and go to your home and tell your family how brave you were.  They’ll probably try to assure your wife that they won’t rest until they catch the bastard that killed you. I don’t know about you, but I don’t give a damn what they do at that point because I will already be dead.  I don’t care about vengeance. I would rather be able to go home, hug my kids, and lie to them by saying daddy had another dull day at the station.

“But how can you expect to fight fires with a gun on?”

Guns are small.  Compared to the other 65+ pounds of gear I carry, I wouldn’t even notice it.

“But what about the heat.”

If the temp inside your gear gets hot enough to cause problems with a gun, you’re already dead.  

“How can you expect to do your job AND look out for threats?”

That’s why we watch each other’s backs.

“But people expect firefighters to SAVE them.  Not shoot people.”

Yup.  They sure do.  When someone calls 911, they expect to see a team of genius-decathlete-brain surgeons at their door ready to risk life and limb to save their loved one’s life and protect their home from destruction.  So can you give a legitimate reason why they shouldn’t trust such a person with the responsibility of carrying a weapon for self-defense?

The fact is that we in the fire service are conflicted on this as well. Many of the “old guard” think it’s a bad idea.  They come from an era where this type of violence against firefighters was unheard of.  But times are changing.  We don’t WANT to have to think about using a gun to protect ourselves or our crew mates.  We just want to do our jobs.  But we also don’t believe that we should have to surrender our natural born rights to self-defense simply because a department policy says so.

Do I think that every firefighter should be packing?  No.  It would be a logistical nightmare.  But I do think it is time for departments around the country to start examining ways to allow their firefighters and EMS crews to protect themselves until the police get there.  Whether it is a designated officer, tasked with carrying, enabling crews to carry, at their discretion with the expectation of continuing training or cross-training volunteers in active shooter and force-on-force tactics alongside the police.  

It’s time to have that conversation.

 

About The Author

I am a husband, father of 4, part time musician, and career firefighter living in the wilds of southern Indiana.

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