Do fire/EMS personnel have a duty to intervene when excessive force is used?
While not a legal requirement like for police officers, firefighters and paramedics may witness inappropriate behavior in the field that necessitates intervention
When a police officer brutalized a trespassing suspect by holding a gun to his head, pistol whipping and choking him for more than 30 seconds, his partner stood by and did nothing. Due to her lack of action, she lost her job, was sentenced to six months of house arrest, and will carry a criminal record for the rest of her life.
Duty to intervene laws for police officers are relatively new, with most enacted since the 2020 death of George Floyd. At least seven states have laws that require a witnessing officer to intervene when excessive force is being used and, in some cases, to report the incident. Other laws restrict the use of physical methods for restraining suspects and mandate training.
So far, these laws do not apply to firefighters, paramedics and other emergency responders outside of law enforcement, but it’s possible they could in the future.
In the meantime, it is worth asking why someone would stand by silently when something inappropriate is taking place right in front of them. And what steps can be taken to prevent excessive use of force and other inappropriate actions on the emergency scene?
Barriers to intervention
There are two general reasons why people don’t step up in these circumstances.
1. Approval. Sometimes the witness to the behavior either agrees with the action taken or is neutral toward it and sees no need to do anything. This situation is more than an individual problem – it extends into organizational culture.
Are there individuals or groups in the organization who adhere to their own standards when it comes to the treatment of people on emergency scenes? If so, this is likely well known in the department. Clear and consistent standards must be established and communicated, and training is the obvious way to do this. But training is not enough if there is a persistent problem in this area. There must also be consequences for those who choose to ignore professional standards, and for those who enable them.
2. Fear. Perhaps more common is when a first responder knows that the action taken by another on the scene is wrong but does not speak up for fear of retribution or retaliation by the offending individual and/or other department members. The fire service has a strong tradition and history of members wanting to protect their own. A firefighter stepping up in this way can seem to be a dangerous betrayal. It can also be very hard to know how to act in the heat of the moment when caught off-guard.
It is important for organizations to establish a clear standard that requires individuals to speak up and act when witnessing inappropriate actions by a coworker. This must become an organizational value, not just lip service. It must be understood by everyone on the department that it will be considered a dereliction of duty to fail to act in these situations.
Training to intervene
But it’s not sufficient to just have a common standard for intervention. People also need skills to do it, and these skill sets require specialized training and practice. Law enforcement officers now have a national resource in this area through the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) Project, which provides training and support for law enforcement agencies.
Unfortunately, this organization does not currently include fire and EMS in its focus. Localized training in conflict management and communication can be the first
important step toward preparing people to provide positive intervention when needed. It is important to include scenario-based problem solving in such training, using examples from actual emergency calls.
Training and facilitated conversations can have the effect of letting people know that small actions can have a big impact. Following the death of George Floyd, many demonstrations occurred around the country, and some of them turned violent. In one video, a police officer was restraining someone by kneeling on his neck, similar to how George Floyd was killed. The officer’s partner reached out a hand and placed it on the first officer. That was enough to jolt that officer out of his inappropriate behavior and defuse the situation.
A department-wide responsibility
Creating a duty to intervene requires work at several different levels. There must be an organizational ethic that is universally embraced, acknowledging that excessive force or other types of inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated. Leaders must be vigilant in addressing problems, like the known bully or the firefighter who shows signs of anger management issues. Individual department members must be provided with skills and support to effectively intervene if necessary. And there must be an expectation that such intervention will happen and that everyone present will be held accountable if it doesn’t.
Firefighters, EMTs and paramedics depend on the trust of the community to do their jobs. For a long time, such trust has been given generously and nearly unconditionally. But as first responders’ duties continue to expand, particularly when supporting law enforcement in certain situations, the duty to intervene becomes even more critical.