Author(s): Ken Willette. Published on September 1, 2016.

THe Firearm and the Damage Done

Reconsidering the threat of gun violence to first responders


ON A ROUTINE CALL ONE EVENING back when I worked on an ambulance, we were dispatched to check on an elderly woman who was complaining of general weakness. Central dispatch advised that the caller lived alone, that the front door of the house was open, and that we would find the woman in her second-floor bedroom.

As we prepared to move the woman from her bed to our ambulance gurney, I slid my right hand underneath her pillow to position her for transfer to our stretcher and felt cold steel.

“Guido, I have a gun here,” I said to my ambulance partner. I withdrew my hand and asked the woman if it was loaded. She told me it was not. To my relief, a police officer arrived and quickly retrieved the pistol.

In my 35 years with the fire service, that was one of two incidents where I came in close contact with a firearm. The other was when we transported a police officer to the hospital and had to remove her weapon before departing the scene.

During my career, it was hard to believe firearms would ever be used against us. I had seen firsthand the destructive results of firearms at other medical calls, but their power was never directed at me. Even after the tragic 1999 mass shooting in Columbine, Colorado, which increased my awareness of responder safety, I did not see myself as a target, only as a responder there to assist others.

I wish I still felt that way.

The increase in incidents where high-powered assault-style weapons are used to inflict harm on civilians and law enforcement is a tragedy. The capability of these weapons to deliver lethal rounds into closed areas and at a distance poses a serious risk to firefighters, whether they’re inside a building or outside in a staging area. One assault weapon with a single magazine of ammunition can kill or wound more than a dozen people. In recent events where shooters had multiple magazines and multiple weapons, they had the capability to harm many more. A medical response involving a single person with a gunshot wound is more commonly becoming a mass casualty incident requiring the response of multiple agencies, with the fire service and other responders needing to take immediate lifesaving actions.

In some incidents, responders themselves are the targets, and there is a growing list of events where firefighters have been killed and wounded by shooters. In July, a sniper in Dallas killed five police officers and wounded nine others, and an ambush a week later in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, killed three more officers and wounded three. The magnitude of these events and the impact they have on responders has left me shocked and angered.

In the early 2000s, it was suggested that the fire service purchase ballistic protection for at least the ambulance crews—a measure I did not support at the time. As a chief, I believed my firefighters should not operate in areas where they would be subject to gunfire; they would enter the scene only after law enforcement had secured it. In light of recent trends, I now believe that ballistic protection requires equal consideration when conducting a risk analysis for firefighters’ personal protective equipment.

The things I used to believe as a fire chief were based on a set of facts and assumptions that were sound and supported by experience. With each shot fired in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and many other locations, though, I find some of those assumptions splintering.

KEN WILLETTE is fire service segment director at NFPA. Top Photograph: Shutterstock