EMS challenges and lessons learned from the Ferguson riots

The absence of a unified command center early on, being misled by social media and communication with crews provided valuable insight on better handling future protests


A session on the Ferguson, Mo. riots presented at Fire-Rescue Med in Henderson, Nev., provided insight on the EMS challenges, stresses and lessons learning during the 2014 civil unrest.

Chris Cebollero, Chief of Christian Hospital EMS, and Rob Wylie, Chief of Cottleville (Mo.) Fire Department, opened the session by describing the first moments on the scene after the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer Darren Wilson, and how it escalated to looting and riots that resurfaced after the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson.

No unified command center

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When Cebollero first arrived on the scene, he was in a safe zone with 10 tactical vehicles, three ambulances, and 150 protesters with signs saying to kill the police.

“I wanted to know who was in charge of the scene,” said Cebollero.

But it would be 10 days before a unified command center was set up.  

“These young EMTs and paramedics and supervisors were looking to me for leadership,” Cebollero said. “And I was missing it because I was trying to survey the situation.”

Communicate with crews, even if there is nothing to say

Because it took so long to set up a unified command station, there wasn’t a lot of intelligence about the situation. Crews were getting frustrated by the lack of information, but “we had no information to share,” Cebollero said.

So he began implementing a morning briefing during breakfast to talk about the night before and what to expect for the day ahead, which helped ease some of the tension.

“Communication has to be funneled to the crews, even if there’s nothing to be heard,” Cebollero said.

He also stressed the importance of hearing what crew members have to say. While trying to keep tabs on social media, much of the intelligence came from employees looking at Facebook and blogs, and passing along the information.

Christian Hospital EMS Chief Chris Cebollero and Cottleville (MO) Fire Department Chief Rob Wylie describe lessons learned from the Ferguson riots during Fire-Rescue Med 2015. (Image Cate Lecuyer)

Social media challenges

“Social media was one of those things that was our enemy,” Cebollero said.

Protesters used online networking to coordinate, and moved rallies away from responders.

“Wherever the police were, social media would say ‘let’s meet down where they’re not’ and the crowds would move that way,” Cebollero said.

“It became like whack-a-mole,” Wylie said. “Everywhere we tried to move, they would move somewhere else.”

There was also an element of coordinated crime, where people on cellphones watching police walk by would say something like ‘Ok, now’ and bricks would come flying out of nowhere, Cebollero said.

Scene safety while treating patients

Brown’s body was in the street for four hours because every time coroners tried to get close enough to retrieve it, they were sent back by gunfire.

As the protests erupted, it wasn’t unusual to see people leaning out car windows pointing weapons at responders.

Cebollero remembers a call for someone who was beaten unconscious while walking home. It took crews 45 minutes to get to him because it wasn’t safe. The QuickTrip that was torched after a false report that Brown had robbed the gas station was allowed to burn to the ground because it was unsafe for firefighters to put it out.

“We couldn’t get in to help anybody,” Cebollero said.

Wylie recalled an incident where a firefighter thought he heard a scream coming from inside a burning building. But gunfire erupted around them, and the firefighters were ordered out of the building. The concern of potentially leaving someone inside was upsetting, though thankfully the building turned out to be empty.

Basic needs for responders during deployment

Once crews were deployed, they were out in the field with what they had, with little chance of getting back to the command post during their shifts. In the heat people experienced blisters and rashes, and often they wound up sleeping at the station rather than going home. Cebollero and Wylie realized the importance of a simple change of clothes, and having extra socks and underwear on hand that providers could grab.

Most memorable quotes

“It became very, very, uneasy, very, very, quickly.” — Cebollero

“That safe zone was becoming a hot zone. Everybody was very emotional and it got worse as the day went on.” — Cebollero

“This event never ended. The media left, but things were still going on. There were still protests, there were still riots, there were still challenges.” — Cebollero

“We realized with the verdict that not only were we preparing, everyone else was preparing as well.” — Cebollero

“The minute they made the [grand jury] announcement everything just went to hell in a handbasket,” — Wylie

“We’ve now set a stage for what these types of shootings will result in. I can tell you this. We are now planning for a one year anniversary event, and that’s going to be challenging.” — Cebolloero

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