When riots and public disorders break out, it is not unusual for police officers and fire fighters to be met by angry protesters armed with rocks, broken bottles, and burning garbage thrown from street level and even from the tops of buildings. In the past, it has not been unknown to have small arms fire directed at unarmed fire fighters and EMS personnel as part of a protest as well; now automatic weapons are far more likely. Recently there have been instances where fire fighters responding to a fire have been deliberately ambushed before they arrive on the scene in an attempt to discourage them from controlling the blaze set to entrap on their way. Events such as these not only put our first responders in position to be injured or killed, but also delay the response that the public is relying upon to preserve life and property.
In New York City, fire fighters are classified as peace officers with special powers to make arrests and issue summonses for violations of rules promulgated to protect the public from foreseeable fire risks and related hazards. Fire Marshals specially trained to investigate suspicious fires for evidence of arson, are members of FDNY appointed fire fighters first and then selected for training to become fire marshals after their successful completion of the Fire Marshal examination and additional law enforcement training. FDNY fire marshals are classified police officers and they are armed and have full police powers. Both firefighters and fire marshals could provide a needed level of protection from armed criminals and terrorists for both fire department personnel and the public they serve.
The debate over allowing non-law enforcement officers in public service, such as teachers, to carry weapons in their classrooms remains a vigorous one with proponents and opponents each making sound arguments in support of their positions. It is unfortunate that the arguments also raise the specter of young children being injured and killed, often by other children whose motives often remain a mystery. But the reality of what is at stake if we don’t upgrade our response to mass shootings and killings in America’s public institutions and workplaces requires a forthright addressing of the issues of arming teachers and others with a duty to protect the public. Whether in an elementary school in Connecticut, a high school in Oregon or a college campus in Virginia, active shooters leave us with the question: would it have been different if someone had been trained and authorized to return the shooter’s fire? And if the answer is yes, don’t we now have a duty to provide reasonable security against such risks?
The time has long been right to consider training and arming of firefighters to respond to the active shooters who have now been showing up across America. Whether it is classified as workplace violence against firefighters or part of terrorism against the public, what is important is that we start protecting those most likely and most vulnerable among us against what have become reasonably foreseeable risks of crime, including terrorism. Our firefighters are best prepared and trained for this job. As peace officers and emergency responders, firefighters have demonstrated over time that they have the courage and judgment not only to protect the general public but also their colleagues who daily are sent into infernos to put out a fire only to find that firearms are being used against them. Not all fire fighters should be asked to serve in an armed capacity, but perhaps a fire department “emergency response team” made up of specially trained and qualified fire fighter personnel available to respond to calls where the need for armed personnel would be most likely especially where police response is already taxed to the limit. Firefighters already on the scene with additional active shooter training and ability to terminate an active shooter would be a vital asset in our ever-expanding war on crime and terrorism.