Fire department may give firefighters, EMTs guns in face of rising violence
Chief among the debate is whether guns would make EMTs and firefighters safer or create more problems
By Cornelius Frolik
The Dayton Daily News
GERMAN TOWNSHIP, Ohio — A debate is ramping up over whether to let EMTs and firefighters carry guns on the job.
Some emergency medical services workers say they now routinely face more violent patients and dangerous situations. But the prospect of armed emergency medical technicians worries critics who question whether guns would improve their safety or lead to other problems.
Tim Holman, chief of German Twp. Fire and EMS in Clark County, said he is weighing pros and cons of allowing his paramedics and emergency medical technicians to carry concealed handguns on the job.
He said they encounter belligerent and unpredictable people, and police are not always immediately available to subdue or arrest troublemakers.
Holman in September 2011 hosted a forum at the EMS World Expo in Las Vegas called, "Is it time to arm our EMTs?"
He said some EMS departments across the country are considering arming their crews, because the job is becoming more dangerous and there has been a string of violent and deadly attacks on medical responders.
"It is a hot topic, and I am trying to make it a hotter topic, because it is something that needs to be looked at because we cannot depend on law enforcement to protect us," he said.
But critics said medical first-responders do not have the training to act as police officers, and learning how to avoid and escape violent situations would make EMS workers safer and make more sense than equipping them with lethal weapons.
Holman said EMT safety is a major problem, and there have been many attacks on first-responding medical professionals across the country.
On Sunday, an EMT in Fort Wayne, Ind., was injured after he was struck by bullet fragments when his ambulance was shot 17 times while transporting a stabbing victim, according to news reports. In June, an ambulance that was responding to a shooting in Houston was shot at least four times by the suspect, authorities said. In March 2011, a motorist pulled out a gun and unloaded on first responders at the scene of a Long Island car crash. Police eventually shot and killed the gunman, but medic crews had to hide behind an ambulance to avoid gunfire.
Holman said he twice has stared down the barrel of a gun after responding to requests for medical assistance. He said members of his department have been punched and assaulted, and EMS workers nationally are increasingly targeted by vicious gangs, anti-government extremists, unpredictable criminals and intoxicated or infuriated people. He said carrying a concealed weapon could give EMS workers the ability to protect themselves against potentially fatal attacks.
Holman said he is simply studying the issue, and he does not expect that his EMS crews will pack heat anytime soon.
German Twp. trustees would have to change the township's policy forbidding public employees from carrying guns on the job, and trustees have not discussed the issue.
"At this time, I really do not have an opinion about this," said Trustee Charles Metzger. "It may come to that someday... but I can tell you that any kind of decision will be way down the road."
But Holman's proposal has garnered support.
Philip Mulivor, spokesman for Ohioans for Concealed Carry and a former New York paramedic, said he thinks EMTs and paramedics should be allowed to carry concealed firearms, because they should not have to fear for their own safety while providing life-saving treatment.
"First responders face many dangers, and they can be both unpredictable and severe, and I don't see why we should deprive them of the ability to protect themselves in life-threatening situations," Mulivor said. "It would be particularly sad if we had a firefighter or paramedic — God forbid — lose their lives because they did not have the same means to defend themselves that any other law-abiding citizen in Ohio can have."
Law enforcement officers are dispatched to emergencies at the same time as EMS crews when dispatchers identify safety concerns, and medical responders stay away from dangerous scenes until police arrive and secure the areas, said Dr. James Brown, chairman of emergency medicine at the Boonshoft School of Medicine at Wright State University.
But he said incomplete information about the nature of the emergencies and unpredictable people at the scenes mean that medical first-responders are sometimes put in potentially life-threatening situations, and police cannot respond to every scene.
"In this day and age, I would feel better if I was armed if I was them," Brown said. "I would be supportive of any chief who felt the circumstances were such that they needed to go that route."
He said medical first-responders would need additional training to handle firearms in crisis situations, to learn how to properly and effectively react when confronted with imminent danger. He said EMTs and paramedics have inherently dangerous jobs, and violence against all health care workers is on the rise.
About 60 percent of nonfatal assaults and violent acts in the U.S. workforce occurred in the health care and social assistance industry, and three-fourths of these assaults were by health care patients and residents of health care facilities, according to an August 2010 report by the U.S. Department of Labor that analyzed data from 2003 to 2007.
A health care worker or social assistance employee is almost five times more likely to be a victim of a nonfatal assault or violent act than the average worker in all industries combined, the report said. Assaults and violent acts were the second leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in those industries in 2007, behind only transportation incidents, and one-quarter of the 134 people who were killed on the job that year died as a result of violence.
Lack of training
But some members of the EMS community said it is not a good idea to mix EMS responsibilities and handguns.
EMS workers operate in dangerous environments, but they do not have the training or legal right to act as police officers, said Kip Teitsort, a veteran police officer and paramedic in Missouri who teaches a nationally recognized defensive-tactics class titled "Escaping Violent Encounters for EMS and Fire."
Police officers try to bring suspects and attackers under control by using less-lethal force, and they draw their guns only as a last resort, Teitsort said. Unless armed EMS workers go through the same training as police officers, they will have only concealed firearms at their disposal for protection, which could result in a deadly mistake, he said.
"I am fully for people carrying guns, but I am just not for EMS providers carrying guns on scene," he said.
Teitsort said EMS departments need to invest in training their workers how to defuse dangerous situations and escape attacks. He said his classes teach EMS workers how the brain works during a crisis, what to expect during an attack, how to avoid and retreat from dangerous scenarios, and how to document the encounters.
About 71 instructors nationwide teach Teitsort's classes, including Lt. Jeffrey Susong, a paramedic with the Dayton Fire Department.
Susong said police must go through intense training about when to use deadly force, and medical first responders should not have to make such decisions. He said EMS workers should just focus on providing treatment, and if a dangerous situation arises, they should know how to mitigate or retreat from the threat.
"I don't believe that putting a gun in our hands is necessary," he said. "I'd like to think that when people call us, they know we are not aggressors and we are there to help."
The Ohio Department of Public Safety's Division of EMS said implementing policies that would allow EMTs, paramedics or firefighters to carry concealed weapons would have to happen at the local level. Local EMS departments contacted for this article said they have policies that forbid employees from carrying weapons, and they support the policies.
Last month, The Columbus Dispatch reported that 10 of the 14 firefighters who carry city-issued firearms were not certified by the state, and city officials took some of the guns out of service because the department lacked a use-of-force policy.
German Twp. Police Chief Bill Dickerson said he has "mixed feelings" about the concept of arming EMTs, and he doubts his township will have armed EMS workers anytime soon.
"I have all kinds of questions that I don't have the answers to," he said.