Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on November 1, 2016.

Civil Action

In the wake of violent protests across the country, the metro chiefs endorse procedures to help fire departments address incidents of civil unrest. Do you have a plan?


IN SEPTEMBER 20, Jon Hannan, the fire chief in Charlotte, North Carolina, received a phone call informing him of disturbing news coming out of his city: Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old black man, had just been fatally shot by a Charlotte police officer.


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Scott’s death worried Hannan, who has served as fire chief in Charlotte, the state’s largest city, for nearly nine years. In addition to the fact that a citizen had been killed, Hannan was concerned the shooting—yet another in a series of fatal police shootings of black men nationwide—would escalate tensions between law enforcement and the city’s African-American community, possibly leading to violent protests as similar events had done in other cities. He kept on top of the situation as best he could.

Part of the challenge for Hannan was that he was far from home; in fact, he was visiting NFPA’s Massachusetts headquarters to attend the annual Urban Fire Forum (UFF). Coincidentally, one of the main topics for discussion at the UFF was how the fire service should respond to incidents of civil unrest.

Responders in Charlotte didn’t have long to prepare. Just hours after the shooting, demonstrations began and soon turned violent; 16 police officers were injured in clashes with protesters that night, according to The Charlotte Observer. There were reports of protesters hurling rocks, bottles, and traffic cones from overpasses, damaging vehicles gridlocked in traffic on Interstate 85. When the protests showed no signs of abating the next morning, Hannan left Boston on the first flight to Charlotte. “I felt I needed to be at my post for something that serious,” he said.

Charlotte’s nights of violence illustrated the urgency with which fire departments and other responders regard situations of civil unrest, which occur when protesters or other groups of people become violent and destructive, posing a risk to themselves and the community. In the past, fire departments have either worked from their own policies concerning civil unrest or made do without any formal procedures in place to respond to such situations, according to Russ Sanders, executive secretary of the IAFC/NFPA Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association, the fire service group that coordinates the UFF. But thanks to two new position papers endorsed by urban fire service leaders who attended the UFF, departments across the country now have resources to turn to if they need assistance formulating a response to situations of civil unrest. “Now we can all be working from the same sheet of music, so to speak,” Sanders said. “I think it’s a big step in the right direction.”

Relationships, training, & communication

The first document, a white paper on fire service response to civil unrest, details the history behind civil unrest events involving the fire service; measures departments can take to be prepared for these events, such as maintaining a positive relationship with community members; and how the fire service should work with law enforcement both before and during civil unrest events. The second document, a civil unrest standard operating procedure (SOP) for fire departments, details the specifics of safely responding to civil unrest events, from defining the composition and purpose of responder groups on the front line of an unrest event to outlining the procedure of abandoning a fire station, should that become necessary.

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The documents are essentially products generated from what urban fire service leaders have learned works best in responding to civil unrest events and, just as important, what doesn’t. For example, Sanders said, some departments’ previous SOPs concerning civil unrest prohibited firefighters from using ladders to climb into windows or onto the rooftops of buildings in what are known as protest “hot zones,” or areas of intense disturbance. According to the new documents, however, such use of ladders is permitted if a rescue is involved.

“If there’s a rescue involved, you might have to take your chances and ladder the building and you might have to take your chances and lay interior lines,” Sanders said, adding that this is what already comes naturally to firefighters. “That’s just common sense. No fire department’s going to pull away when there’s a person hanging out the window on the second floor. They’re going to try to rescue them.”

Fire service involvement in situations of civil unrest isn’t new. In Benton Harbor, Michigan, in 2003, for example, rioters torched 21 buildings, flipped cars, and threw rocks and bricks at first responders trying to quell the conflict, according to the white paper. In San Bernardino, California, in 2006, dumpsters were set ablaze, shops were broken into, and businesses and vehicles were vandalized as a crowd of more than 1,000 punk-rock festivalgoers took to the streets, advocating white power. Sanders recalls responding to similar situations as a new firefighter in the 1960s, a decade that saw countless protests, some of them violent, associated with the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and other social upheavals.

But with the frequency of civil unrest events increasing in recent years, triggered mainly by fatal police shootings, Sanders said now is the time to push for the standardization of the fire service’s response to these situations. “Civil unrest was a natural topic to address at the UFF because we had just gone through Ferguson and Baltimore,” he said, referring to incidents of widespread protests and violence sparked by the deaths of black men at the hands of police. In Baltimore alone, citywide protests spawned 150 vehicle fires and 60 structure fires, according to the white paper.

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, assistant to the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, wrote the white paper and SOP in conjunction with Sanders and echoed his point concerning the timeliness of these documents. “A lot of these (urban) departments either did not have a standard operating procedure in place for responding to civil unrest or they had a very dated policy,” she said in an October interview with NFPA Journal. “So we decided...we needed to have this discussion and identify something for today’s environment.”

Asked to identify some of the biggest takeaways from the documents, Moore-Merrell pointed to the sections of the white paper that stress the importance of fire departments building strong relationships with the community and training for civil unrest events alongside law enforcement and other responder agencies, among other topics. “That is a huge piece of this,” she said. “You must engage and communicate with law enforcement.”

For some departments, the white paper and SOP served as an affirmation of the procedures they had already been following. In Hannan’s case, the Charlotte Fire Department has policies in place that closely mirror those set forth in the UFF documents. “Our department strives to stay current on policies,” Hannan said. “I feel like the policies we have in place are already fairly well aligned with everything that came out at the UFF.”

WATCH Chief Jon Hannan provides some lessons learned from a fire chief's perspective. (1:24 minutes)

As the dust settled on two days of protests in Charlotte, scores of buildings and vehicles had been damaged and dozens of police officers and National Guard members had been injured. One protester died after being shot in an altercation that did not involve law enforcement. Fire service involvement in the event was minimal; according to Hannan, the CFD’s role was limited to extinguishing a trashcan fire and tending to largely minor injuries of law enforcement officials and civilians. In all, Hannan said he was “extremely pleased” with how Charlotte’s first responders handled the situation. He plans to study the Metro Chiefs’ white paper and SOP to see how his department’s policies could be updated or improved.

Moore-Merrell had the same advice for all fire departments, even if civil unrest seems unlikely in their communities. “If you’re reading [the UFF documents] once you have something going on, you’re already behind,” she said. “We encourage everybody to read it beforehand, think about it, and apply it locally.”

ANGELO VERZONI is a writer in Boston.