Fire/EMS Response to Civil Unrest Events

If there were a violent protest or civil unrest event in your community how would you respond? Could you deal with numerous medical and fire calls during the event?

The 1st Amendment guarantees the people the right to peaceable assembly and to petition their government to address grievances. On occasion that line is crossed and public safety becomes a concern. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) defines a Civil Disturbance: An unlawful assembly that constitutes a breach of the peace or any assembly of persons where there is danger of collective violence, destruction of property or other unlawful acts.

Each year across the United States there are several acts of Civil Unrest that take place. Fire/EMS responders will encounter many challenges during their careers, some of which will include civil disorders, riots or protest situations. Annually firefighters and paramedics have been injured during these situations. As our society become more complex and gives rise to many intricate problems, first responders must gain a knowledge and understanding to solve these issues. Would your agency be able to effectively respond to a civil unrest event?

Civil unrest events can occur for a variety of reasons and are not just limited to large urban areas. These events can occur in several situations: peaceful demonstrations/protests that turn confrontational, violence related to major sporting events, concerts and "block party" parties that turn violent, planned political conventions that are disrupted because of activists, confrontations at "hot spots" such as abortion clinics or research labs and riots related to racial tensions.

Does your department have guidelines/procedures on dealing with civil unrest events? The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500 states in section 6-7: Civil Unrest/Terrorism: "Fire Department shall develop and maintain written guidelines that establish a standardized approach to the safety of members at incidents that involve violence, unrest or civil disturbances. Such situations shall include but not be limited to riots, fights, violent crimes, drug related situations, family disturbances, deranged individuals, and people with fire department operations."

In planning for civil unrest events it is important to review an example of disturbances that have occurred in the recent past:

  • May 31, 2004 - Miami, Florida
    Authorities reponded to the scene and arrested some partygoers in Miami, Florida, after a riot broke out at a hip-hop festival. Included fighting and vandalism.

  • April 17, 2004 - Ames, Iowa
    1,000 students vandalized cars, looted stores and fought with police during an Iowa State University weekend festival.

  • November 17-20, 2003 - Miami, Florida
    Numerous injuries and arrests as police clash with protesters during "Free Trade Area of the Americas" political conferences.

  • November 6, 2003 - Kansas City. Missouri
    Marilyn Manson concert ended in chaos when the crowd rioted following the show's cancellation. Rocks, beer bottles and bottles filled with urine were thrown at the officers, the police fired pepper spray at the fans.

  • October 15, 2003 - Montreal, Canada
    A crowd infuriated by the last-minute cancellation of a punk rock concert tore through downtown Montreal, overturning cars and smashing into shops. Five people were injured.

  • June 16, 2003 - Benton Harbor, Michigan
    Firefighters were pelted by rocks and bottles as they responded to dozens of structure and vehicle arson fires during a riot. Three firefighters were injured and two apparatus damaged.

  • April 20, 2003 - Durham, New Hampshire
    An estimated 4,000 people rioted downtown after the UNH Men's Hockey team lost in the national championship game. More than 80 people were arrested. Beer bottles, full beer cans and rocks struck firefighters.

  • December 7, 2003 - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
    Several injuries result from last minute cancellation of Guns N' Roses concert. Fans threw beer bottles and caused extensive damage to concert location.

  • November 25, 2002 - Columbus, Ohio
    Night of rioting, looting and arson fires after Ohio State defeated Michigan State.

  • April 6, 2002 - Minneapolis, Minnesota
    For six hours police clashed with over 600 students near campus after Minnesota defeated Maine for the NCAA men's hockey title.

  • March 31, 2002 - College Park, Maryland
    An estimated crowd of 5,000 students flooded the Maryland Campus and area neighborhoods after they lost to Duke in the men's NCAA Final Four Basketball Tournament. Numerous acts of vandalism and rubbish fires were reported.

  • April 7, 2001 - Cincinnati, Ohio
    Racial tensions led to several days of violence. The result was scores of injuries, numerous vehicle, trash and structure arson fires, widespread damage and 800 arrests for looting and rioting. Several fire stations and fire apparatus were damaged.

  • 2001
    Violence associated with Mardi Gras celebrations erupted in Seattle, Philadelphia, Fresno and Austin, Texas.

Civil unrest events have occurred at or near college campuses when teams have either won or lost critical football or basketball competitions. Each year during March Madness college towns are rocked by civil unrest events, as students become disorderly following tournament basketball games involving their school's team. If your town has a team at the NCAA or other major sporting event, have you planned for the Fire/EMS response to civil unrest situations?

Does your jurisdiction host large political conventions and conferences? Past experience at such events such as the Republican National Convention (RNC), Democratic National Convention (DNC), G8 Summit, World Trade Organization (WTO), and International Monetary Fund (IMF), etc. have shown the need for pre-planning and inter-agency communication.

It is important that Fire/EMS agencies meet with local law enforcement to develop agreements concerning police support during critical events. With any of the events described above there will be a large increase in medical and fire calls. As numerous anti-war protests and mass marches occurred across the United States in October and November of 2003 the FBI distributed Intelligence Bulletin# 89 titled "Tactics Used During Protests and Demonstrations". The bulletin addressed activist's use of training camps, surveillance, violence, vandalism and other tactics.

Law Enforcement, Fire and EMS all share the same priorities during a critical incident. Planning and inter-agency cooperation for any event should be paramount. Several issues will need to be addressed. Law Enforcement will need Fire and EMS coverage during the event. Firefighters may need to extricate protesters from locking mechanisms devices. EMS may need to provide tactical medics. Law Enforcement will need to provide security and over watch for Fire/EMS units entering the "exclusion area" or "hot zone" of a civil unrest event. Will the Fire Dept still use hose lines to "disperse" protesters at the direction of law enforcement? Several critical questions will need to be answered.

There will be a tremendous need for a coordinated effort among all agencies to ensure a safe and effective response. SAFETY IS PARAMOUNT FOR ALL RESPONDERS! Trained tactical medics from law enforcement agencies, fire service, and emergency medical services are an excellent resource to use during these types of events. Tactical medics are specially trained and equipped firefighters/paramedics who to provide specialized casualty medical care and support to law enforcement tactical operations. For additional information on tactical medics and tactical medic training see visit Tactical Element online at http://www.tacticalelement.com."

In 1994 the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) formed a multi-agency Civil Unrest Task Force after several civil unrest events and released a Task Force Report with recommendations and guidelines on preparing for Civil Unrest events. FEMA also produced a Technical Report in November of 1996 on Fire/EMS Operations during the 1996 St. Petersburg, Florida riots. Information on both documents are available at www.fema.gov

There is a tremendous amount of Civil Unrest information on pre-planning, training, lessons learned, community relations, protester tactics/devices, response, and other important issues that cannot be covered in this article due to time and size constraints. This article will focus primarily on the "Fire/EMS Response to Civil Unrest Events". Please follow local guidelines and procedures. This article is for informational purposes only.

Experience with past civil unrest events have shown:

  • Pre-planning is critical if there is going to be a planned event.
  • Immediate interagency cooperation/Unified Command is essential.
  • Clear communications are necessary for effective operations.
  • Access to helicopters for overhead assessments is a plus.
  • Move or empty trash dumpsters since they are easy targets of arson.
  • Immediately extinguish fires if possible because they become a method of gathering large groups of individuals to one area.
  • Secure construction sites since they contain rocks, bricks, concrete, barrels and other items that demonstrators can use.
  • Will fill barrels with water or cement and use to block roads or roll down hills towards law enforcement.
  • Alcohol is a significant contributor to violence during events. In sports and concert events alcohol consumption has escalated violence and increased the number of inured persons.
  • Protesters will be organized and use such tactics as safe houses, surveillance and communications with radios/Nextels.
  • Have used "super soaker" squirt guns to spray ammonia, gasoline and other chemicals on law enforcement.
  • Molotov cocktails are a serious danger.
  • Protesters will use rocks, bricks, bottles, cans, fireworks, etc. Will also use devices such as slingshots or wrist rockets to shoot BBs, marbles, lug nuts and other similar items.
  • A human chain is accomplished through the interlocking of arms, legs, and bodies and is used to quickly block streets and intersections.
  • Protesters will use "locking devices" consisting of steel and plastic PVC pipes to lock arms. Also buckets, bike locks, drums and other devices are used to anchor individuals.
  • Bicycle locks, or homemade substitutes, are used to lock individual protesters together or to fixed objects.
  • Protesters will also place suspicious packages and call in bomb threats.
  • During civil unrest events 911 call volume will go up.
  • During the LA Riots two firefighters were shot and seriously injured. During the Benton Harbor riots several firefighters were injured by thrown debris.
  • FIRE/EMS CAN BE TARGETS OF VIOLENCE.

Fire/EMS Tactics

  • Immediate interagency cooperation/Unified Command is essential.
  • Clear communications are necessary for effective operations.
  • For large scale or multi-day civil unrest event a secured multi-agency Emergency Operations Center (EOC) should be activated.
  • Plan on large media response.
  • Establish Task Force/Strike Teams.
  • Extra staffing and staging of equipment/personnel.
  • Mutual aid agreements should be implemented.
  • Fire personnel should wear full PPE at all times on-scene and responding to and from events.
  • EMS personnel should wear helmets and clearly marked EMS jackets at all times on-scene and responding to and from events.
  • If there is any doubt that that a responder is not seen as a firefighter or EMS responder wear a road vest or t-shirt with highly visible lettering.
  • Body armor should be obtained for those responding into the "impact" area.
  • Remove equipment such as axes, hooks and poles from outside of apparatus.
  • Placing duct tape in the windows of emergency response vehicles in the shape of an "X" may keep the glass from shattering and striking responders.
  • Always operate with a buddy.
  • Never leave pump panel operator alone.
  • No aerial company operations.
  • No laddering of structures or personnel on roof (life safety/rescue only).
  • No interior firefighting (life safety/rescue only).
  • Short hose lays, rapid attack, and quick "take-ups".
  • No overhauling and employ "hit and run" tactics.
  • Use of deck guns when possible.
  • May be necessary to abandon scene quickly.
  • Be prepared to leave vehicle and trash fires unattended if the situation warrants.
  • Be prepared to provide decon for multiple individuals exposed to law enforcement chemical agents such as OC, CN or CS.
  • EMS may need to implement disaster procedures such as triage tags, casualty collection points and field treatment areas for minor injuries.
  • Use of Tactical Medics in supporting law enforcement operations is encouraged.
  • ALWAYS USE LAW ENFORCEMENT ESCORTS!

Please follow local guidelines and procedures. This article is for informational purposes only.

Recognizing the threat of Civil Unrest events in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has tasked the Community Research Associates (CRA) in developing Civil Unrest planning and response courses for First Responders. Community Research Associates, Inc. (CRA) is a national research, training, and technical assistance firm. CRA offers two courses for Fire/EMS personnel titled The Managing Civil Actions in Threat Incidents (MCATI) programs. The MCATI Command Course brings together various public safety personnel charged with the responsibility of command, and educates them on how to plan a collaborative response to a civil disorder. The MCATI Protester Devices Course teaches fire and law enforcement personnel techniques that can be employed to safely extricate protesters from the various locking devices utilized during a civil disorder or demonstration. For additional information about the MCATI courses at CRA, please visit www.community-research.com.

There are also several excellent sources of information that you can utilize to update your plans. These include:

  • "When Violence Erupts" A Survival Guide for Emergency Responders Dennis Krebs, Baltimore County Fire Dept, Captain http://www.medicsurvival.com/

  • "Intro to Civil Disturbances" Survival in a Hostile Environment Jerry Smith, LAFD (Retired)

  • "Task Force Report on Civil Unrest" Technical Report FEMA/NFA

  • "St. Petersburg, Florida 1996 Civil Disturbance" Technical Report FEMA/NFA

It is impossible to cover all the issues that will need to be addressed during a Civil Unrest event. Each community should have a plan in place to address these types of events. Fortunately most responders will not have to deal with a civil unrest event during their career. The world is rapidly changing and first responders are dealing with newer and more dangerous issues on an increasing basis (meth labs, suspicious powders, SARS, suicide bombers, secondary devices, snipers, WMD, etc.) Hopefully you will gain some information to take back to your agency to assist with planning and training efforts. The more our public safety agencies prepare, the better they are prepared to respond to effectively manage any type of situation that might arise. The community has entrusted us with their safety. SO LETS PREPARE NOW.


August Vernon is an Asst. Coordinator with the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Office of Emergency Management (NC). Please feel free to contact August at augustv@cityofwsfire.org with any questions or comments. This column previously appeared on Firehouse.com.

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