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Home > Topics > Safety
June 22, 2010

Gang awareness tips for responders

The presence of gangs and associated activity is real in many parts of the country

By Terry Valentino
Training Division Commander

There is a hazardous material that may be traveling in and about your community that is not referred to in the Emergency Response Guidebook, DOT manual, or MSDS.

These hazards are the havoc created by gang members and the emergency scenarios they create from their insidious activities conducted in the apartments, streets, parks, and parking lots in towns and cities across the United States.

There is no formal certification or credential available on gang awareness as there is with hazmat or other specialty rescues. You are not afforded any NFPA recommended PPE or public health issued immunization from its exposure.

As with hazardous materials, you don't know how much is in your town at any given time. You don't know when or where it is traveling. You don't know how volatile the material is until it spills into the public domain.

As an emergency first response team, we must be cognizant of gang culture, mindsets, appearance, operations, and the dangerous settings we may unknowingly be sent to render emergency rescue and medical care. Emergency workers must change their scene safety mindset should they find themselves dealing with an injured gang member.

The presence of gangs and associated activity is real in many parts of the country. It is estimated that the city of Chicago has more than 100 gangs and in excess of 125,000 gang members. The activity and operations of gangs are similar to that of a Fortune 500 enterprise. The only difference is that the former distribute illegal drugs, firearms, and it is all fueled by power of its leaders.

There is a hierarchy of gang members starting with the "Wannabes" then progressing to the "Marginal," "Hard Core," and finally the "Leaders." Male gang members outnumber females 20 to one. Most have an extensive criminal history.

In EMS/Rescue we refer to the sick or injured as "the patient." In law enforcement, the police refer to the person as the victim or offender who is sick or injured. It is critical to your safety as EMS and rescue workers that you adapt the police mindset in settings where gang activity is suspected.

If that is the case, the typical patient must be viewed as the victim or offender of an attack, fight, or gang retaliation. This will assist you in remaining constantly cognizant of your team’s safety.

When approaching an incident scene, we should always conduct a scene size up. This involves observing "condition indicators" and thus planning out the action plan for mitigation of the incident.

But as with a typical Fire/EMS size up, you should never rely on just one indicator to make your plan of action. In this new urban and suburban setting, some key indicators have evolved.

Making note of these will help you to move from the typical Fire/EMS scene safety size up to the new, atypical gang-related hazmat size up.

These indicators include but are not limited to:

  • Graffiti: Color, symbols, letters
  • Clothing: Styles and colors, manner it is displayed, numbers on jerseys
  • Jewelry: Signs, symbols
  • Tattoos: Placement, symbols, color, style, words, letters

Understand the settings you may encounter as a result of gang activity. A trauma call may result from a stabbing, beating, or shooting. The victim may be identified as a gang member from their tattoo or clothing.

A motor vehicle accident may have resulted from the gang members fleeing the scene, evading police pursuit, or hastily leaving a crime scene. An overdose from heroin, cocaine, alcohol or club drugs may also have gang undertones.

Fire and EMS workers may be targeted because the offending gang may take exception to your lifesaving measures on the victim they spent so long attempting to injure or violate. You don’t know if the sick or injured patient is a victim or an offender. The person could be armed and concealing a weapon.

Once a plan of action has been determined, the first in officer must ensure the safety of the first responder crew.. Most times all the attention is directed at the sick or injured victim — and your back is to all the outside activity that is posing a real threat to your safety.

Other gang members may be lurking to either protect or perhaps complete some unfinished business. You may be all that stands in the way. Gang members don't see firefighters and paramedics in the same the light as the general public. If you are in the way, you may be eliminated. You are just seen as a person in uniform, the city, or any symbol of authority they despise.

When called to a trauma or vehicle accident or medical emergency, your size up condition indicators may depict gang activity. In this instance, step back and be cognizant of gang culture and mindsets and adjust your scene presence accordingly.


The author would like to thank Arlington Heights Police Detectives William Kirby and Russell Mandel for their assistance by sharing their many professional experiences in gang crime investigations and EMS/Rescue settings.

Terry Valentino entered the fire service in 1976. He is the Division Commander of Training for the 108-member Arlington Heights, Ill., Fire Department. He also manages the operations of the department's regional fire academy, which provides basic to advanced fire fighting training certifications as approved by the Office of the Illinois State Fire Marshal. He attained his Bachelors Degree in Applied Fire Science from Southern Illinois University and Masters Degree in Management from North Park University, Chicago.

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