So many times, we see the great disconnect between the emergency services and yes, law enforcement specifically not playing well with others. Typically, this is the result of egos, power and control. Why are we not working together? We all have the same purpose, which is to save lives. At the end of the event, it truly does not matter which uniform we wear, as long as we successfully mitigate the event with the least amount of damage. However, there is still a large disconnect between public safety agencies at hostile events. Repeatedly, we see that hostile events require a strong, unified command that is established early in the event. Most importantly, these events require lockstep teamwork.
Real-world experience will tell you what this truly looks like. The true picture, though incomplete during most hostile events, is an officer at the trunk of his or her car trying to do the best they can to mitigate the event for the first 30 to 60 minutes. However, we are often missing something very important from this picture. The picture is truly complete when there is a fire department chief officer on one side of that law enforcement officer and an EMS supervisor on the other. That is a complete picture, and the only way you are going to be able to truly manage and mitigate the loss of life.
Truth be told, many officers will not reach out initially to fire and EMS. In some cases, law enforcement never interacts with fire or EMS on hostile mass casualty event calls. This is a fatal flaw, and oftentimes falls on law enforcement for thinking they can handle it all. We all know that every agency can mutually benefit from a strong public safety partnership.
At hostile events, we know that law enforcement focuses on “running to the gun” and quickly neutralizing hostile threats. However, we continue to see that law enforcement agencies lack many capabilities that other public safety agencies can provide. It is important to note that the seven deadliest active shooter events since 2000, happened despite law enforcement arriving on scene in three minutes or less. The two deadliest active shooter events in United States history (Pulse Nightclub and Route 91) happened with law enforcement on scene at the time of the shooting. Clearly a fast and effective law enforcement response comprises only a small part of the solution to these events.
An optimal response requires a unified response; that means all public safety agencies (to include law enforcement) working together. Agency commanders need to be co-located at the incident command post. Let’s face it, law enforcement will not take commands from fire commanders, and likewise, fire personnel will not take commands from law enforcement commanders. On a basic note, a lot of law enforcement officers can’t talk on the same radio channels with fire and EMS personnel. When was the last time that a fire commander talked to a state trooper on the same channel? I’m sure many of you routinely run calls with the Highway Patrol, yet you cannot communicate with them.
If we look back at the Century 16 Theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, we saw that the perpetrator deployed two cannisters of chemical munitions. Law enforcement had difficulty dealing with this type of threat and made requests to the fire department to use SCBAs to make entry into the theater.
Fire personnel have the capability to train, certify, and in many cases equip officers with APRs — air purifying respirators. We are seeing more and more hostile events where the attacker uses chemical munitions and/or sets fire to the location as they carry out their attack. Law enforcement still must stop the killing, even if the building is full of chemical gas and or smoke. At this point, we should be learning from one another based on countless hostile event after-action-reports. We need to figure out where we are lacking and how to improve as a team, not as individual services.
Another example where the fire service’s expertise can greatly benefit law enforcement, is heavy mechanical breaching. Fire personnel can do amazing things with breaching tools, especially base hand tools. In a recent active shooter event in North Carolina, the fire department quickly unified with law enforcement to breach numerous doors, searching for perpetrators, patients and people sheltering in place. This fire department planned for this type of response and was ready to immediately implement it minutes into the call.
We have also seen many cases where the attacker will barricade, and lock or chain doors. This makes it very difficult for the responding officers to get in to stop the active assailant. Fire has the capability to cross-train officers on how to defeat these obstacles and provide them with the resources to do it. Tactically trained fire companies can also integrate with law enforcement to do the breaching for them, if law enforcement is providing security/over-watch. This will allow more law enforcement assets to be available for additional work.
Another example of true unification of public safety agencies at hostile events is the use of the Rescue Task Force (RTF) model. This is an integrated team of law enforcement with fire/EMS personnel to quickly enter the crisis site and assess the victim’s injuries, stop any life threating exsanguination, and then rapidly extract the patient out of the crisis site and into a vehicle for transport to appropriate hospitals. This sounds great, but many agencies across the country still have not implemented the RTF concept, even though all of the leading public safety professional associations and after-action-reports from hostile events call for it.
We still do not grasp the need for the 20-60-90-minute rule, even though this concept has been empirically proven. This rule clearly states that someone — meaning a first responder from any of the services with basic BLS skills — will get to a gunshot victim within the first 20 minutes of being shot, stop the bleeding, and stabilize the airway (body positioning).
Within 60 minutes, every patient should be transported to appropriate hospitals where they are receiving massive transfusion protocol, advanced airway management and prepped for surgery. Within 90 minutes, every critical patient should be in a surgical suite receiving life-saving surgical intervention. In smaller jurisdictions, law enforcement does not have the luxury of armored vehicles. In these cases, they can use large fire trucks — water tanks, ladder trucks — to use as rolling cover to perform contact team operations, hasty rescues and evacuation of the people inside the crisis site. When was the last time that you trained with law enforcement on how to drive your fire apparatus? This happened at Columbine High School when law enforcement commandeered fire trucks to effect rescues.
I am the law enforcement tactical commander for a large city, full-time, Tier 1 SWAT Team that performs more than 1,000 tactical operations each year. We often use the fire department to support us for positive pressure ventilation after we deploy chemical munitions. We also use them for gross decontamination of our team after we serve warrants on meth manufacturing houses. We also have plans in place to use their apparatus — including tower platforms — as sniper observations towers to perform tactical over-watch during critical events.
I can continue to write on and on about the importance of working together for the greater good. Unfortunately, some will read this article and ignore it saying, “Well, that’s not happing, that’s not my problem.” I’m here to say it will become your problem when an event happens, and the victims’ families are looking at you and your agency for answers. They will want to know why there was a delayed response or total lack of response. It will all eventually come out in the end. All we are asking is to train together, understand each other’s roles and responsibilities, and prepare to mitigate the worst.
Dominick Pagano is a co-founder and lead instructor with Threat Suppression, Incorporated; a law enforcement, military, and private sector consulting firm based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Pagono is currently a lieutenant and the senior law enforcement training instructor with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department in Columbia, South Carolina where he has worked since 2003. Dominick is the tactical commander and lead instructor for the SWAT team.