Should chiefs give paramedics guns?
Before deciding whether or not to allow firefighters, paramedics and EMTs to carry concealed firearms on duty, give careful thought to these five factors
By Rob Wylie
For the past five years I have spent many hours developing and teaching a course called "Pre-Meditated Responder Ambush." One topic raises its head every class: Do you think paramedics and EMTs should be allowed to carry a weapon?
Unfortunately, like most things in our profession, this is not a simple yes or no answer.
First, let me be clear on my personal views. I am a firm believer in the Second Amendment and that all citizens who are lawfully capable of owning and carrying a weapon should be allowed to do so.
I also believe that carrying a gun and using a gun are two drastically different propositions.
Last, I believe that a gun is a tool, and as a tool, I would no more tell an organization that they should or should not allow their members to carry a concealed weapon while on duty than I would presume to tell them which attack line to pull on every fire, or what size supply line they should use.
Personal views aside, there some facts about this issue — the pluses and the minuses that I have come to know well after 30 years in the fire service, 20 of those attached to a tactical team as a medic.
The pluses are few. Having paramedics and EMTs armed with concealed weapons offers a measure of protection and the ability to fight back on a lethal level should a lethal threat present itself.
That's really about it for the pluses.
On the minus side, there are five major ones to contend with.
To me this a weak excuse not to do something used by people who are too lazy to really get into the issue at hand, or as a way to dismiss an idea entirely.
The fact of the matter is that liability can be overcome with policies, practices and training. Police departments all over the country send armed officers out on a daily basis and successfully manage liability — some better than others, of course.
2. Two jobs, one person
Ask anyone who carries a gun for living and they will tell you that keeping care and custody of a weapon is a full-time job. Imagine trying to perform an extrication, even a relatively simple one, and making sure that your weapon is secured, but accessible in case a threat appears.
You cannot perform your essential duties as a medic or a firefighter and keep proper care and custody of a weapon. That being said, I can see nothing that would prevent a member of the crew, say the company officer, from stepping back from the action to be the armed, eyes and ears looking for trouble on a scene.
Paramedics and EMTs work hard to cultivate the perception that we are here to help. Is the presence of an armed medic, or even a medic wearing ballistic protection, a deviation from the perception?
First of all, I would advocate that any personnel who carries a weapon do so in a concealed fashion. As I see it, if an EMT is allowed to carry a weapon, it should be for defensive purposes only.
Openly displaying a weapon is itself an offensive action, in my opinion. The definition of third-degree assault is, to paraphrase, creating the belief in another that they may be subject to harm by another person's actions or statements.
Do fire and EMS responders want to risk creating that barrier or fear in our customers?
4. Role confusion
Again, that the introduction of a concealed weapon into our workspace should be for defensive purposes only. Personnel need clear guidelines on when, where and how it would be appropriate to draw or display a weapon.
Clear rules are a must if an organization decides to allow its personnel to carry concealed weapons. I would hate to see a paramedic flourishing a weapon during, say at a domestic violence call, and the presence of that weapon escalated the violence.
In that situation, the right thing to do is leave the area and let law enforcement handle the situation, not escalate the situation by introducing a firearm into the scenario and trying to manage the incident.
This is the big one. If personnel are going to carry a weapon, even a concealed weapon, they should be required to train. Standing 10 feet from a paper target and plunking rounds is not adequate training.
Police officers in Missouri are required to complete at least two hours of firearms training annually, but most departments require up to 24 hours annually. Tactical officers receive a minimum of 16 hours a month according to guidelines published by the National Tactical Officers Association, plus another eight hours per month for specialty units like snipers.
The point is that when someone finds themselves in a life-or-death situation and reaches for a firearm to defend themselves, the usual biological rules don't apply. Heart rates soar to 180 beats per second or higher. Respirations catapult and adrenaline screams into your system.
All these physiological responses are what Lt. Col. Dave Grossman refers to a "condition black." In this state, your fine motor skills are diminished, your hearing is muted and your vision becomes myopic.
These responses will make you less effective in using a weapon if you have never experienced (through training) these symptoms.
That's why training should incorporate as closely as possible the conditions you will face when defending your life. That's a tall order, but it can be accomplished.
Work with your law enforcement partners to develop relevant, real-life training that will allow you to inoculate yourself from some of these stressors, or a least recognize them and develop strategies to deal with them.
So after all that, let's revisit the original question: Should medics be able to carry concealed weapons on duty?
The answer is: It depends.
If you and your organization go into this with your eyes wide open and consider all the "what ifs," then I don't see any reason not to allow personnel with the training and the maturity, backed up by well though out policies, practices and a strict training regiment to carry a concealed weapon for the purpose of defending themselves and their crew.
If your department can't meet those criteria, leave the weapons to the experts.
About the author
Chief Wylie has been in the fire service for 29 years serving first as a volunteer firefighter and then as a career firefighter, rising through the ranks to become the fire chief of the Cottleville FPD in St. Charles County, Mo. in 2005. During his tenure, Chief Wylie has served as director of the St. Charles/Warren County Haz Mat Team and as president of the Greater St. Louis Fire Chief's Association. He currently serves as the president of the Professional Fire & Fraud Investigator's Association. Additionally, he is member of the governor's homeland security advisory council, and of the State of Missouri's Fire Education and Safety Commission as well as immediate past chairman of the St. Louis Area Regional Response System. Rob has served as a tactical medic and TEMS team leader with the St. Charles Regional SWAT team for the last 19 years and serves on the Committee for Tactical Casualty Care's Guidelines Committee. He has recently joined the faculty of the Counter Narcotics and Terrorism Operational Medical Support program through the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C. Rob is a certified instructor through the Missouri Police Officers Standards Commission, the Department of Homeland Security's Center for Domestic Preparedness as well as Missouri State Fire Marshall's Office and teaches regularly at the state, local and national level on leadership, counter terrorism and tactical medical support of law enforcement operations. He is a graduate of Lindenwood University, the University of Maryland Staff and Command School and the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Chief Wylie is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. You can reach him at Rob.Wylie@FireRescue1.com.