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Firefighters Carrying Guns on the Job

Firefighters and EMS personnel are dying on the job, shot by their patients or others specifically targeting public safety officers. Will arming the firefighters or EMT's provide a greater level of protection for them, their fellow firefighters or the patients?

I present a controversial issue related to firefighters and EMS personnel carrying guns while on the job. This was not a 2nd Amendment issue or discussion and it was not couched as a 2nd Amendment issue - it was a discussion to explore the nuances and legal issues related to recent shooting events in our country affecting our fire services and the issue of firefighters carrying guns.

Now I know the Marine Corps mantra of, "this is my rifle and this is my gun ----------" so please excuse my calling this "a gun". As a former Navy Corpsman attached to the Marines, I know and respect that difference.

After about a 70 minute extremely interactive discussion on both sides of the issue with the Fire Engineering Lawyers, the end result was - no carry by firefighters or EMS personnel due to the many issues related to: what is the essential purpose of the firefighter and EMS personnel; what are the numerous training issues required to safely carry; what are the state and local laws permitting firefighters and EMS personnel to carry while on the job and what are the long term effects on the employee and employer if a firefighter pulls his weapon and kills or injures an aggressor, the patient, bystander or fellow responder?

Let's take this discussion from the beginning. The issue was brought up after two firefighters were killed and two were wounded while responding to a fire in Webster NY. The fire was a set up by a demented individual intending to kill someone, unfortunately the victims were firefighters. The firefighters were assassinated by the individual using an assault weapon. In a recent event in Louisiana, a police officer was killed and two deputies were wounded while they were responding to a trailer house fire by an armed individual. A 2009 incident in Lakewood Washington, four police officers were murdered in a coffee shop by an armed felon with the intent to kill police officers. These officers were armed as well but were caught by surprise.

The comparison here is any public safety officer be it fire or police are in danger from someone armed if there is an intent to kill or injure them - carrying weapons did not make the difference for them. The other question here is; if the police officers all had guns and it did not seem to make a difference in the outcome; what difference would be made in the Webster NY incident if the firefighters were carrying guns? That is a deliberation your department needs to make if you are contemplating arming your firefighters. There are several departments who allow selected staff to carry a firearm and most of those are Fire Marshals and are generally commissioned officers with the police powers to arrest and even those individuals get into trouble if they misuse their weapons. (see Dave Statter's blog - Columbus (OH) fire investigator pull gun to detain motorist)

The Fire Lawyers, one whose family consists of several police officer's contributed to this line of discussion. If there is a decision by the fire department to arm your firefighters, there is an extensive process that needs to take place. The first is an analysis of the true need to arm the Fire or EMS responders and development of a Policy covering all aspects related to this decision. I suggest obtaining a copy of a policy from your local police department to see what they are doing related to their police officers carrying and using their weapons. Second, which firefighters will be armed? Will it be all of the firefighters or a select few? When you select those firefighters it is highly recommended that you perform a comprehensive background check. Your department may already perform background checks on your firefighters when they are hired, but the recommendation is to perform a comprehensive back ground check for those selected to carry.

This may be problematic if your department is predominately volunteer as many volunteer departments do not perform a background check on their firefighter staff. Some of those firefighters may have questionable background issues arising as a result of the background check's so be prepared for the fallout of these new revelations. The next step is to have those passing a background check and selected to carry a weapon to be evaluated by a Psychologist or Psychiatrist. Again, the police have a lot of experience in this area and have a deeply supported psychological network for their officers. The fire service should emulate this program for their firefighters as well. The Psychologist or Psychiatrists will determine mental fitness of those selected firefighters.

Next is the choice of weapons. Will they carry handguns (what type), shotguns or rifles? You have to ask yourself, how can the firefighter carry a long rifle or shotgun and perform their job? The choice would probably be a handgun of some type. Weapon training is your next step and the training should be extensive with direct instruction on weapon safety, using and firing the weapon. Again, this will take a period of time to ensure your firefighter or EMS provider is well versed in the weapon's capabilities and limitations. There needs to be a shoot, don't shoot scenarios as well a some combat shooting training to ensure that when the firefighter draws his weapon, there is every intent to use it in a probable defensive move; with the decision making process measured in seconds and not minutes. Frequent refreshers on the range with an experienced instructor (again police officer) should be a part of your Policy. As this is a budgetary issue, what do you give up or add to, to correctly fund this program? Lastly, seek input from your Insurance company to determine if they will cover your firefighters and department if there is a deployment and discharge of the weapon. As the fire service has very little experience in this area, many insurance companies may be hesitant or refuse to cover your employees or department.

Let me toss in a little twist to this discussion - what if your firefighter (career or volunteer) is a commissioned police officer and a member of your department. The general consensus from the Fire Service Lawyers is we would love to have this individual respond with us - but armed or not armed? Again armed is our choice but what of department Policy? Do you have one in place addressing this issue? Is the firefighter/police officer doing his firefighter or police job when they pull their weapon. Yes, many more questions than answers for your department to resolve.

Now, you have a firefighter who shoots wounding or killing an aggressor. What next? Most police agencies place their officers on administrative leave with pay while the investigation takes place. Most of those officers are exonerated and many are sued by the survivor or estate of the deceased. The legal process may not be resolved for many years and at great financial and emotional cost to the firefighter and/or the department. There is a major psychological issue related to shooting another person, so your psychologist needs to get involved with the firefighter. Remember, our general perception of shootings are based on our experience with TV news or TV programs or movies depicting shootings or police shootings of all types. Everything appears to be OK for the cop or shooter at the end of show. The reality is they are not OK for a long period of time and will need extensive counseling. Ask any cop or someone with military experience who has been recently deployed how they feel after shooting someone. Yes, combat is different, but the personal experience is similar and is a life altering event for most.

OK Chief's, your firefighters are asking to carry guns while on the job. What is your response? Please think long and hard about this question and determine if it fits into the essential elements of your firefighter's job and the mission of your fire department. There is a great liability and responsibility for the department and individuals involved in answering this question.

That's all for now folks. Let's be safe out there.

By M2 Resource Group, Inc
EMS & Fire Subject Matter Expert Witness; Litigation Support; Psychological Testing & Counseling
John K. Murphy, J.D. M.S, PA-C, EFO is a consultant focusing on the areas of fire service delivery and private industry strategic planning and creating innovative ways of delivering services efficiently and cost effectively. John has worked in the emergency services field for over 30 years providing emergency medical and fire services and as a licensed medical practitioner in a clinical setting. As an attorney, John’s legal background provides the foundation for risk avoidance in the areas of employment hiring and termination practices, worker liability, consulting and training services for private and public entities. John has also developed educational programs for public and private industries to include the development and enforcement of personnel policies for harassment, sexual harassment, risk management systems that address various liability exposures including employment practices; sexual misconduct; and harassment and violence in the work environment.

Copyright M2 Resource Group, Inc

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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