Kentucky firefighters faced gunfire last Saturday after responding to a report of a vehicle fire in a series of events that is becoming all-too-common.
Firefighters from Bell County Fire Department responded after receiving a report of a vehicle burning at 9:20 p.m. on Feb. 1. After they arrived at the scene, a man emerged from the house, cursed at the responders, and fired at them without injuring anyone. After the assailant went back inside, troopers surrounded the house and attempted to contact the occupants. When they were unsuccessful, a special response team was activated and chemical agents were launched into the home. Vance Miller, 44, and David Lefevers, 37, were arrested and charged with first-degree wanton endangerment.
There appears to be an increase in situations in which firefighters face gunfire.
“We’ve had some very serious situations in the past few years,” said Ross Sanders, Executive Secretary of the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association for the National Fire Protection Association, in an interview. “It used to be very rare.”
Fighting fires has always posed a danger and those committed to extinguishing flames expect to face collapsing buildings, heavy smoke, extreme heat, falling debris, and the threat of burning on a regular basis. But firefighters now additionally face a rise in violence caused by home or vehicle owners or by individuals on killing sprees.
One well-publicized example of this occurred in West Webster, NY in December, 2012. William Spengler, 62, lured firefighters to his Rochester-area home by setting a house and vehicle fire. When members of West Webster Fire Department arrived at the scene, Spengler shot at them from his position on a rise in the land about 40 feet away. Two men died and two were wounded.
There have been numerous others.
Last September in Fresno, Calif., a frightened homeowner shot a firefighter who had entered his home through a window in response to an accidental medical alert.
In March, 2011, the victim of a car accident in Bellmore, NY, opened fire on responders, striking a firefighter approaching the vehicle in the back.
A sniper shot firefighters responding to reports of a burning truck in Maplewood, Mo. in July, 2008, killing a firefighter/paramedic and injuring two police officers.
In addition to the rising numbers of attacks occurring at the scenes of conflagrations, firefighters face situations involving mass shootings. In response to attacks such as the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., in which firefighters were among the first responders, the Urban Fire Forum revised procedures for situations in which there are active shooters. Active shooter situations include situations such as mass-shootings as well as surprise attacks such as the man who shot at the Bell County firefighters.
Law enforcement officials and firefighters identify three zones in active shooter situations. The safest area is “cold zone”, out of danger, where responders, the press, and onlookers gather and operations are organized. The “warm zone” is the zone of indirect threat – the area of a building, campus, or area where the assailant is not present or has already been. The “hot zone” is the area where there is a known hazard and immediate life threat, where the gunman is a present and immediate danger.
“In the past, procedure has been that firefighters aren’t sent into the building until it is completely cleared [the gunman has left or been apprehended],” said Sanders. “Now we will send rescue task forces into the building to provide emergency care. If we have intelligence indicating where the shooter is we will move into the “warm zone” where the shooter has previously been.”
The UFF position statements allows response teams composed of two police officers, an emergency medical technician, and a paramedic (the fire department supplies EMTs and paramedics) to enter “warm zones”, as well as outlining procedures for tactical emergency casualty care.
Officials have noticed an increase in these mass shootings and active shooter situations.
“It’s more common to have these types of situations now than 5 years ago or, certainly, 10 years ago,” said Sanders. “It’s something that firefighters have to be prepared for now. We didn’t have these types of issues in the past.”