On Scene Arms Race
I sit here at my desk, facing the street, typing furiously on my wife’s laptop because mine doesn’t have Microsoft Word. It is 2017. We have Drones. We have Cell phones that are essentially portable supercomputers. Why do we not have Word on every laptop? What else does one do with a laptop?
But I digress.
We have a sticky situation to look at. It seems to have cooled of late, but you can still hear whispers of it in dark corners of rural firehouses. I’m talking about carrying firearms on fire and EMS scenes. This issue reared its ugly head a few years ago, and never really died for some of us. I can walk into either of the departments I work for right now and stir up a heated debate just by mentioning this in passing. Keep in mind, I live in a mostly-rural sector of Ohio. Out here, everyone seems to be armed. You walk into any given house on a call and it wouldn’t be all that alarming to spot a rifle mounted on the wall, three shotguns in a cabinet in the corner, a pistol on the end table and one more stripped down on the dining room table. You are aware of them, absolutely, you are aware of them, but they don’t elicit the same alarm response that they might merit in another part of the country. Out here, we have become somewhat numbed to the presence of firearms on scene. I don’t want to say blind to it, but there is certainly room for complacency to gain a foothold. Given that there are so many guns around here, and we are mostly at ease with them, one could easily assume that I am a supporter of arming firefighters and EMS personnel. I am not.
Don’t even bring up personal safety on scene as a valid reason to carry. If you want to talk fireground and EMS scene safety, can we first compare the number of deaths caused by a lack of guns versus the surplus of Big Macs? According to a June, 2016 NFPA report, 51% of firefighter fatalities last year were caused by sudden cardiac arrest. It would be no surprise to learn that a not inconsiderable percentage of these cases of sudden cardiac arrest could have been avoided by dietary changes and exercise. And yet, loudly-documented, obvious health issues still don’t trigger nearly the emotional response that the topic of carrying on duty does.
Care to take a guess at the percentage of firefighter fatalities by “gunshot” or “fatal assault?” 1%. That’s right, 1%, folks. Emotionally disturbed patients and knife-wielding lunatics aren’t killing us; second and third helpings at the dinner table are far more efficient means. That’s not me, Randy the “Lefty Liberal Snowflake” telling you that. That’s the NFPA.
There’s this gnawing sensation that we have our priorities out of order. Or, maybe it’s just me. Here’s what gets me frustrated; We know that poor diet is killing us across the board. We know that a lack of training can have tragic consequences. We know for a fact that all manner of carcinogens are present in smoke and debris. Given all those known unresolved safety issues, why are guns even on our radar? If we rectify every other issue and make firefighting and EMS the safest professions in the world, save for gunshots and stabbings, then talk to me about carrying on scene. If ever death by “fatal assault” should creep into the double-digit percentages, yeah, let’s discuss it. Until then, we have not only bigger fish to fry, but whales in comparison.
Me, personally? I have no desire for myself, nor any member of my crew to be armed, assuming I have a choice in the matter. I have two major reasons for this, perhaps unique to my situation, perhaps not:
One: It’s not my job.
This sounds simpler than it really is, it’s not my job. I am a firefighter/paramedic, I take care of people. At any given moment, I could be monitoring two IV lines (maybe an IO, I’m an IO fanboy), an advanced airway, chest compressions, any number of drugs and trying to decide if that’s fine V-fib I’m seeing, or road noise. It is not at all out of the question that someone could sneak up and catch me all unawares, and disarm me.
As we discussed before, everyone out here in the boonies is comfortable with guns. This works both ways. There is a better than average chance that the individual sneaking up on you has a strong understanding of weapons and ammunition. There is an equal chance that this individual understands your weapon better than you do.
I know I will hear that if I were properly aware of my surroundings this wouldn’t be an issue. I can assure you that I’m very aware of my on-scene surroundings. This goes back to the local issue of guns being everywhere, including strapped to my patients (open and concealed carry). Where I get hung up on this is that I am now adding another responsibility to my job description. If I bear the weight of carrying a firearm, and everything that comes with it (socially, morally, ethically, professionally, legally) something else must give. The job seems plenty wide and all-encompassing enough as it is. As we discussed before, there’s a lot going on. IV’s and airways and whatnot. Am I to become part cop at the expense of my airway skills, of my cardiac rhythm identification? No, thank you. My job is first and foremost to care for people. Anything that might take away from that is out.
Two: I’m not a cop.
Let’s review a few hard truths. I have been told that I have been afflicted with a bad case of “cop face.” I am tall-ish, and can typically be seen sporting a high fade haircut (I even had a hipster part for a little bit. It didn’t work out). My demeanor is perhaps best summed up as socially awkward, bordering on passive-aggressive. Maybe some smugness peppered in, for good measure. We can all agree that I’m at least cop-esque, if you will, per vicious stereotypes concerning our brothers and sisters in blue. On top of this, I spend roughly two-thirds of my life in a dark blue uniform. One of them even has badge embroidered on the left breast. I carry dark, oblong items with sharp, hard lines on my belt. I can’t quite match up with some of the Batman utility belts you see at conventions, but I carry a radio, pager and if I’m feelin’ froggy, a small pouch containing an extra set of gloves (those are kinda nice sometimes, don’t judge). In the dark, could one of those look like a weapon? Absolutely. I’m sufficiently cop-y without a gun.
I have been mistaken for a cop on scene. How many people are forthcoming with cops, in general? Not many. That whole “you’re under arrest” thing really ruins a party.
As a paramedic, I need people to be honest with me. The t-shirt that reads “don’t do anything you don’t want to explain the EMTs” really comes to life here. People that have no reason to hide anything may hold back in the presence of law enforcement. I have a lot of cop friends, and I still experience a brief, chilling, bolt of terror when one gets behind me. I know I didn’t do anything, but he’s a cop, right?
As fire and EMS personnel, we don’t deal with a lot of distrust from the public. Why invite it in? Maybe we would gain a better understanding of this struggle if there were more dirty firefighter movies to spin up the imaginations of the public. No, not those kinds of movies. I suppose corrupt firefighter movies would be a better wording.
if it looks like a cop, walks like a cop and carries a gun like a cop… is it really a paramedic or firefighter? I don’t believe so.
That’s where I stand on this issue. And if you don’t agree with me, that’s ok. Not everyone will. But I leave you with this scenario to ponder over:
What if a firefighter or EMT carrying a gun on scene accidentally shot an unarmed teenager? This still happens to police officers despite their extensive training. There have been riots. There has been political unease and general cynicism. Imagine the headlines. Is risking the public’s unquestioned trust in us worth it? Because once it’s gone, brother, it’s gone.
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