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.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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