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Armed Firefighters – the Debate Continues

The recent shooting of a volunteer firefighter at an accident scene on Long Island has sparked a debate on whether or not firefighters should be allowed to carry firearms while on-duty. Much of the online discussion about the shooting and the merits of firefighters being armed ignores some of the more serious concerns that lie at the heart of the problem.

First let me make this disclosure: I am a life member of the NRA and I believe strongly in our right to bear arms. This is not an anti-gun message – it’s a “let’s think this through” message.

There is a huge difference between supporting the 2nd Amendment and supporting the right to be armed 24/7, and particularly while at work. Any fire department that is seriously contemplating such a move needs to thoroughly research and think through the issues. There are four major issues that I see:

First of all,  the use of firearms constitutes deadly force, and deadly force can only be used as a last resort in self-defense or to save another’s life. Police departments train their officers to use deadly force, but also train them in a number of non-deadly force options that can be used as an alternative to deadly force. Law enforcement places a heavy procedural and training emphasis on the proper escalation of force so that firearms are not used unless absolutely necessary.

In many communities, police officers have been convicted of various homicide offenses for using deadly force under circumstances where non-deadly force would have sufficed. Allowing firefighters to carry firearms without training in non-deadly use of force and the use of force continuum seems to leave personnel in a position where the only sanctioned option is to use the firearm.

Second, police officers receive a great deal of combat training on when to shoot, or not shoot based on a variety of factors. Issues of proper target identification, innocent bystanders in the background, and dealing with hostages all factor into the decision making that police officers are trained to apply. This type of decision making is not something that gun owners typically pick up on their own while target shooting at a range or on their back yard.

Third, police officers are trained to instinctively protect their weapons at all times under all circumstances. This training is so vital that it begins on their first day of training and emphasized throughout their careers. I recall sitting in a class of police recruits to address them on fire department operations . The speaker before me was discussing domestic violence incidents. He kept emphasizing the point that at every domestic incident they went to, the perpetrator and the victim had access to a gun. The gun he was referring to was the officer’s own gun. That same analogy would apply to fire department incidents where a firefighter is armed.

There are a number of activities that fire and EMS personnel routinely engage in that may make them vulnerable to losing their weapons, such as leaning across a patient,  reaching for a piece of equipment, or carrying a stretcher with both hands. Add to that the tunnel vision we all often get that causes us to zero in on what we are doing to the exclusion of other things going on around us, and we have a situation that is ripe for possession of a weapon to be lost. We all know that many of our patients are not in the best mental states (it’s one of the reasons why some argue we need to be armed in the first place) and some of these patients may not be able to resist the temptation to grab for a holstered weapon as our attention is focused elsewhere.

Lastly, once some firefighters in the community are known to be armed, the bad guys out there will likely assume that all firefighters in the community are armed. Admittedly, the argument can be made that that could work in our favor, but it may also serve to put unarmed firefighters at risk of a pre-emptive attack. Most importantly, firefighters and EMS personnel may no longer be viewed by some in the community as the good guys, but rather as armed agents of an the oppressive government.

If a fire department chooses to address all of these concerns through procedures and training, then my hat is off to you. While I might not recommend allowing firefighters to carry on duty – I have to admit it may be doable – but it would be an enormous undertaking to do right.

However, to allow on-duty personnel to carry firearms without addressing all four of these issues would in my humble opinion, be reckless. Every shooting incident would expose the department and the armed member to untold liability in tort. It would create the potential for a Federal Section 1983 action for violating the civil rights of any injured parties. The armed member would also likely face criminal charges, or at least a grand jury hearing on whether the shooting was justified or not. But more importantly in my mind, the presence of a gun in untrained hands would needlessly endanger the lives of fellow firefighters and citizens.

The bottom line – like most things that firefighters do – if you are going to do it, do it right. If you can’t do it right, don’t do it. That goes for firefighters being armed.

Comments - Add Yours

  • http://www.medicmadness.com Sean Eddy

    You make some really good points that most people ignore. Officer safety is something that is drilled into law enforcement, and likewise fire / ems personnel would have to adopt the same mentality.

    I don’t think that fire / ems agencies should issue firearms just like grocery store employees or car salesmen aren’t issued weapons. It’s not in their job description to protect the public from harms way.

    Where the Second Amendment comes into play here is the individuals right to defend themselves. Personally I wouldn’t see a problem with ems personnel carrying a concealed weapon for their own protection. However, I don’t think that the department should be responsible for the training or the legal backlash should that person use it. If the person is legally permitted to carry and choses to draw their weapon in an effort to protect their life, then they are no longer acting as a paramedic/firefighter/emt/etc. All of that medical stuff just went out the door, and they are now just “Joe Schmoe” the law abiding citizen attempting to defend themselves.

    Carrying exposed weapons does come with issues and the amount of attention that goes into retaining that weapon could certainly take away from patient assessments, treatment, etc. Carrying a concealed weapon helps to limit that exposure.

    I personally carry a concealed weapon when I’m off-duty. This is something that the State of California and the our Sheriff trust me – the law abiding citizen – to do. So I don’t really think that putting on a paramedic uniform suddenly makes me less qualified to do so.

    I appreciate your point of view on this. Great post.

  • paramedic70002

    Somehow all these worries don’t seem to be a statistically significant problem among the general population in states that issue permits or allow unpermitted carry of firearms.

  • Jeff Vogel

    What about Firefighters that are also Police Officers? I would venture to guess that I am in the minority. I serve as a public safety officer, but have never carried while riding an engine or medic. I would agree with carrying if there were a secure place to leave weapon will wearing full PPE.

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Jeff – Great point. I would think that where we are dealing with a firefighter who is already a trained police officer many of the concerns are already addressed. He/she knows how to protect their weapon and are much less likley to have it taken away by a patient or bystander. They have been trained and qualified in shoot/don’t shoot scenarios. It’s really up to the department at that point about what employees should be allowed to do.

  • chris bassett

    OK I agree with what everyone is saying , but we also need to look at and look at hard is how many times have we the Fire/EMS have been shot at. I have been on the job for more than 20 yr and have never been or threaten with any type of weapon . I am lucky to have police dept in my area to arrive on scene first . So i hope maybe before act do the research first. Thank and a great column

  • Andrew Treat

    I feel that fire/ems personnel have no need to carry firearms because I feel firearms are more for offensive action. We are not cops and having offensive weapons is not in our training. So we must look at more defensive equipment. Things such as bullet proof vests and handcuffs (with proper training) to restrain combative persons for our own protection. Another thing to think about is scene safety. We need to be more vigilant to signs of possible violence and take precautions by having law enforcement secure any scene that may be potentially unsafe.

  • John Murphy

    Curt you make some excellent points here. I know that there have been situations where firefighters and EMS have been challenged by an armed patient. That’s why god created cops. I believe in the right to bear arms but there is a fine line we should not cross.

    Thanks for presenting this interesting commentary

  • Michael Thompson

    I have worked in the Fire service for 26 years. Much of our District is very rural and remote. We do not have police protection as city departments do, police response times average 20-60 minutes. Of course we stage when known violence or weapons are present. But as any firefighter knows the information we receive is only as good as the caller is giving the 911 call taker. My state is a shall issue state (Oregon). Many of our firefighters have concealed carry permits. A number of the members do carry while on calls. The only time I have touched my handgun while on duty was when I was alone with a police officer and two bad guys made an attempt to attack the officer. This happened after a woman was arrested for shooting her husband while she was high on meth. She did this in front of their 12 yo daughter. The other officers had left the scene and we remained to secure the house. The two bad guys arrived in a car both were also high on meth. Had I not remained on scene with the officer and had I not been armed the officer would have been in trouble. He was very gratefull for my assistance. Note: I train with law enforcement on a regular bases and I have had advanced firearms training along with other types of law enforcemant training. The firefighter carrying guns is a hot topic but this time becouse one was a police officer went home and two bad guys went to jail.

  • Brett

    This is an interesting debate. Personally and at this time, I do not think it is necessary for the fire service to be armed, with exception to arson investigators. This may change in upcoming years if we see an increase in terrorism, particularly the suicide bomber. I think the fire service would be better served now with defensive training during recruit school and annual refreshers. Basic self-defense training, situational awareness, and verbal judo should be mandatory training for firefighters and ems workers. I also believe body armor should be available to all personnel. Handcuffs or other restraints should be considered but proper training is needed. Perhaps less lethal devices should also be looked into such as oc spray and tasers.

  • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

    Brett – It is a very interesting debate, and Michael that is a valid point you make. Let me add a new wrinkle I just became aware of: There was a case in Albuqueque recently where a police officer posted on his Facebook page about his employment being “human waste disposal”. Then in February, 2011 he shot a suspect during a routine traffic stop, and guess what… predictably everyone began focusing on his Facebook posting… was it an indication he was trigger happy… was he trigger happy, etc etc. etc….. I mention that only because its just another thing that most firefighters are totally oblivious to – but should an armed firefighter use his weapon -it’s another whole area of his/her life that becomes fair game for public scrutiny. Any FD considering allowing personnel to be armed needs to think it all through and make sure they address all of these concerns.

  • stefan

    First- Facebook- horrible idea to be on EVER>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    2nd- i would never need a gun, i have 3 harpoons of varying lengths, an ax or two and other midevil type equip on the rig..

    Aahahahahahha.

    But seriously, it would but up the department, type of area, situation that they are in. I want to say that Metro-Dade does issue some vests at certian stations. I do strongly disagree with the “Joe Schmoe” part at the top. We “being uniformed” are considered “trained and smarter” by Joe Schmoe and the courts. I am not saying that being uniformed makes you less so to carry, but unfortunately like it or not when we are in uniform we are not J.S anymore…

    Brett had some good ideas in the last one….be safe…….

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  • Haywood Jublomey

    Aren’t medics in the service allowed to carry a side arm? I realize not all medics are in a war zone but just like the tools in a jump bag, better to have and not need than vice versa. Indiana has a basic emt cert and then if you wish to specialize (driving with emergency lights,using defibs, etc) you seek further training. Having a defensive side arm would be just another state sanctioned continuing education qualification you could obtain and have to maintain.

    Im all for it.

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Haywood

      An employer has a right to control what his/her employees do while they are employed… that includes the decision to allow or prohibit personnel from carrying firearms.

      Some departments allow personnel to carry but most do not. As discussed above there are alot of issues that come up.

      One issue that I did not mention previously – but something that I have had to deal with in real life is an employee who says he feels unsafe because his co-worker is armed. He believed the coworker was… how shall I put it… a bit immature… prone to act impulsively. The armed coworker was licensed to carry – that was not an issue. What is a fire chief to do if there are concerns about the individual who wants to carry… and people do not want to work with him/her because they are armed?

  • Nick

    Curt –

    I don’t know if you still follow this thread or not, but I was referred here by Google when I began researching a current dilemma I’m facing. I have a firefighter who states we have no authority to keep him from carrying a concealed weapon while on duty since he has a permit. We have no department policy on this, we just defer to city policy that prohibits weapons on city property unless it’s “properly authorized.” Could this really be the case that we have no input or control on this issue?

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Nick

      Absent a state law to the contrary, an employer has a right to control the workplace – and that includes controlling the weapons that employees may bring in or use while at work.

      It sounds like your situation is being complicated because of confusion over whether the city’s policy applies or whether you need to have your own policy – but that issue aside – an employer has a right to adopt a policy prohibiting employees from being armed. An employer can also specifying how employees will be armed (eg. most police departments specify the caliber/type of weapons officers may carry on duty). If employees had some sort of an absolute right to be armed because they had a carry permit – officers would be able to carry their weapon of choice.

      In terms of implementing a unilateral change (implementing a new no-carrying on duty policy) if there is a union involved it would likely be considered to be a “term or condition of employment” and therefore it subject to collective bargaining.

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  • Kevin K

    Hi. Some context about me. I am a volunteer firefighter/EMT in Central Texas and gun owner/CWP holder as well. When on duty we have specific SOPs in which LE must be on scene first as a proactive protection measure for the fire and EMS crew. This specifically applies to any call that comes through regarding drugs, violence, domestic abuse etc. While I’m a major proponent of licensed concealed carry and gun ownership amongst the general population, I do not personally want to be armed as an FF/EMT. When I took the oath as a firefighter I did so knowing that there was the possibility that I may lose my life while on duty. I accepted this risk which unfortunately does also mean the possibility of being on the receiving end of offensive tactics from a perp or patient. In all honesty though, I trust that by following department SOPs and the age old adage that they teach you in the academy about “ensuring scene safety first” then I can help minimize the offensive risks of the job. Ensuring scene safety in certain light means trusting that my brothers in blue have secured the scene so that I may provide treatment to the victim(s). I find that some of the best weaponry in my arsenal is my brain and training/experience. By having an additional responsibility of carrying a firearm, I then carry an additional responsibility of ensuring that the firearm is secure while I perform my other duties. I’d personally rather just focus on my duties of being a FF/EMT. I do completely understand those that work as a first responder and would like to be armed though. It’s a tough and dangerous world that we work in.

  • Andrew

    In our city we have the luxury of a police force nearby, however, just like us they are increasingly busy. Many times we wait a significant amount of time for an officer to arrive on a scene that may or may not be violent but the potential is there, so we stage. Also while I have never been shot at I have had many patients who turned violent after our arrival. That being said, I would not be comfortable with just any or all of our FF/EMTs carrying a weapon. Perhaps the answer is a few well trained supervisors that are armed and can be there to have the backs of their crews, allowing them to focuse on patient care without the worry of a weapon being taken from them while providing care.
    Another thought I havent seen much comment on is the possibility of non-leathal weapons (tasers). What do think?

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  • Aldo

    I am not a public safety officer or a firefighter, but I do work in the technology field and support both agencies where I work. And in speaking with the firefighters I heard that it is not the "armed" bad guy that the firefighters/EMTs encounter, but the patient who is agitated and becomes violent that is more common. So a gun really is not the solution. But if proper self defense training can work in protecting the first responder than why not offer such training. I know that our Fire Chief offers self defense training to First Responders. There is more information on his website is http://www.street-smart-ems.com.

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Great point Aldo! Perhaps something in the non-lethal range (pepper-spray or Taser) would address the legitimate safety concerns while avoiding the problems associated with arming fire/EMS personnel.

  • Dan

    Curt,

    I am currently a Chief in charge of a Fire Prevention/Investigation Division in a very active medium size city with a less than safe inner city area.  Investigators are trained part-time officers certified by a county organization with arrest powers.  Investigations both fire and code put them in questionable situations including issueing summonses, and night club overcrowding checks, at all hours of the night with little or no police assistance.  Investigators are carrying concealed to some incidences without policy in place.  Looking to develop a policy to include Tazer and Pepper spray.  These Investigators are all certified through the state police academy to carry these weapons for the sheriffs office, any advice on developing such a policy I have not found anything similar to our situation.

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Dan

      There should be a policy and training provided to these officers – whether through the FD – or through their Law Enforcement supervisors. Most police departments have programs (policy, training and certifications) in place so provided the investigators are not using weapons different from those used by the police – if should be relatively easy to modify their policy to suit your needs.

      To be honest – if your folks are carrying weapons and you don't have a policy… well… that is the kind of thing that would keep me up at night.