Call to Arms

Is it time for EMS providers to start packing?

In January 2009, EMT Melissa Greenhagen was shot in the back by a sniper in a hospital parking lot. Two weeks later, EMT Mark Davis was gunned down on a residential call by a patient with a high-powered rifle. Those events respectively happened in Glasgow, MT, and Cape Vincent, NY—not exactly hotbeds of American violence and danger.

All sorts of threats lurk out there for EMS providers. These are the most extreme examples, and prehospital caregivers murdered on duty thankfully remain rare. But lesser incidents of violence can be pretty common. In an unscientific sampling by EMS World, more than three-quarters of those surveyed had been assaulted on calls. Other investigations have produced rates over 60%.

A lot of Tim Holman’s crowd at EMS World Expo had been too. Holman, BA, EMT-P, CFO, chief of German Township Fire and EMS in Clark County, OH, spoke to a large and receptive audience on the provocative question “Is it time to arm our EMTs?” The topic triggered vigorous debate, if not a clear answer, which was fine with Holman.

“My goal was to stimulate discussion and get people to look at both sides of it,” he says. “I’m not 100% convinced it’s something we should do. But I think [dangers] are going to get worse out there, and one of the biggest problems we have is denial that there’s a problem. Some people still seem to think we’re not going to have any more attacks, and I’m a firm believer we will. So ultimately my challenge to the class was to keep the discussion going, and let’s figure out what we can do about this.”

EMS World conducted a follow-up chat to further explore the arguments for arming our EMS providers.

What led you to want to talk about this subject?             

Well, statistics show that one of the most common injury causes for EMTs today is assault. Labor Department statistics show that 52% of EMTs in the field have been assaulted. We see people who have been shot and killed, people who have been ambushed. It seems like it’s increasing, and we need to do something about it.

On average, every law enforcement officer in this country has to protect 1,813 people. It’s an overwhelming job. And when you look at court cases, most of the courts have concluded that police do not have an obligation to protect individuals—there’s only a duty to protect the public at large, not any person in particular. That’s concerning.

So are there circumstances where EMTs and paramedic should be allowed to carry on duty?

I think they should be able to. I’m not against it. I’m not totally sold on it. There are several things that have to be done first. I’d require a minimum of 40 hours of tactical training—situational awareness, clearing the scene, things like that. It wouldn’t be the extensive training police officers have, but providers carrying would need to know tactics and be proficient with a handgun. They’d need to know safety regulations, and they’d have to qualify. There are a lot of stipulations that would have to be put on it.

How does that argument tend to go over with people?

One of the things I hear is that people with concealed-carry permits commit more crimes. That’s not true. The true statistic is, just 0.02% of concealed-carry people commit violent crimes. The figure among law enforcement officers is 5%!

A lot of people argue, ‘Well, I know a lot of EMTs who shouldn’t be carrying a gun.’ And I say, ‘I agree with you. And I also know some cops who shouldn’t be carrying guns.’ It’s something we’d have to monitor and be very strict about. But I say, if I can teach a person to intubate a patient or start an IV or put an IO in, I can teach them how to handle a gun safely.

My motive is to keep EMTs safe. These are people who are out there trying to deliver care to the public, and they ought to be able to feel safe, and not have to wait 20 minutes for a deputy or police officer to secure every scene.

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