Texas lawmakers filed several bills this month that would allow firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) in the state to carry handguns on duty, according to a recent report from KXAN in Texas. The legislation has been proposed in the Texas State House, and would require the first responders to have a permit before being allowed to carry the weapons on duty.
The KXAN report points out that there is currently no state law addressing the issue, and that rules vary across local jurisdictions. One Republican Texas state representative finds that unacceptable and wants first responders in the state to be able to “exercise their Second Amendment rights” while on duty.
That lawmaker, Dan Flynn, furthermore stated that no additional training should be required for the firefighters and EMTs who carry while on duty, since “you know how to shoot a gun before you get a license.” The State Firefighters’ and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas (SFFMA), however, seemed to disagree with that assertion (as would this author), stating that firefighters lack training in law enforcement, including “protecting that weapon, limiting liability, [and] knowing when to use and not use [a weapon].”
It should be noted that there are not overwhelming numbers of fire or emergency medical personnel out there making arguments in favor of armed firefighters and medics. The voices of caution in the KXAN article, as a matter of fact, all came from firefighters themselves, who cautioned that the decision should be left to local jurisdictions, and is not one to be made lightly. Others in the fire service have historically agreed with that sentiment, while some, on the other hand, do advocate for armed firefighters.
Although occasional hostility toward firefighters and EMTs is nothing new, and is in-fact a rather routine part of the job, recent years have seen a handful of disturbing instances where assailants have started a fire, waited on firefighters to respond, and then opened fire on them. Firefighters have been shot at in Ohio in December 2016, Wisconsin in August 2016, and Maryland in July 2016, just to name a few. There was also the recent case of an FDNY medic who was run over by her own stolen ambulance in the Bronx.
While those instances must surely give pause to the fire and EMS community, and force it to reflect more seriously on operational guidelines and personal safety, they should not be seen as “common” or recurring problems. They are, in fact, quite rare, despite recent examples.
A more pressing problem, as pointed out by Task and Purpose, which also reported on the proposed Texas laws, is suicide rates among EMTs, in particular. According to a February 2016 study, EMTs admitted to suicidal thoughts at a rate 10 times higher than the general population.
Task and Purpose also righty pointed to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) statistics for 2015 that accounted for all firefighter fatalities during that year. The NFPA is the leading safety and health trade association for the fire service in America, and its statistics do not show murder as a leading cause of firefighter fatalities in the country.
Sudden cardiac death is generally the leading cause of firefighter fatalities, as a matter of fact, and only one firefighter was murdered in 2015. He was deliberately struck by a vehicle during a fundraising event. Vehicle crashes were the second leading cause of death among firefighters in 2015, which is also usually the case year to year.
The point is this: The great majority of firefighters will never be shot at, nor are most firefighters ever in a position where they should even consider discharging a weapon at someone. That is simply not our job. We are there to save lives and property, and to mitigate all manner of disasters. That should be the focus of our job. God knows there are enough skills to master to make firefighters effective at accomplishing their current tasks. They do not need to become amateur police officers or soldiers while they are at it.
Instead, fire departments and emergency medical systems should continue to rely on (or develop) standard operating guidelines that address situations in which violence against first responders is a possibility.
If an emergency scene is known to be dangerous due to the presence of an armed patient, victim, or assailant, then fire and EMS should stage in the area until the scene is secured by police. If a scene becomes unsafe during the course of a call, then fire and/or EMS should fall back to a safe distance and call for police. If an armed assailant opens fire on arriving firefighters, they should pull back, cease firefighting operations, and allow the police to secure the scene.
The point is that it is not the job of firefighters or EMTs to subdue armed assailants. There are police officers for just that purpose. Do we sometimes have to subdue an agitated patient or drug user? Yes we do. It rarely involves a firearm being wielded against a first responder. If it did, the last thing you would want was a gunfight erupting between firefighters and an assailant. That is a recipe for disaster and dead firefighters and EMTs.
Firefighters (and EMTs) are not trained to use weapons, nor should they be. If it is really that pressing a concern—for example, if instances of the deliberate targeting of firefighters or EMTs were to increase in frequency—then legislation should be passed to fund more police officers. Those officers should then be assigned to every fire apparatus in town, or to respond to every medical and fire call that comes in. It is a simple fix.
Let firefighters be firefighters. Do not turn them into a bunch of Wyatt Earps who lose sight of why they are there: to help people in need and make bad situations better, not worse.