Skip to main content

Planning for Demonstrations, Protests and Civil Unrest


This article was originally published on February 22, 2012.

As our society becomes more complex and its problems more intricate, public safety agencies must gain the knowledge and understanding to keep up. Acts of protest and demonstration take place every day across the United States, and increasingly public safety agencies find themselves drawn into these types of events. They can affect EMS and fire agencies from all size jurisdictions.

While most protests and demonstrations unfold without violence or property destruction, those can occur in some incidents, as in some of last year’s Occupy demonstrations. With an election year on us and global economic turmoil continuing, it is prudent to study such cases and develop effective emergency response guidelines for them.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) defines a civil disturbance as 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.” These aren’t just limited to urban areas. They can occur in a variety of situations, from peaceful demonstrations that escalate to sporting events, concerts and “block parties” that turn violent. Political conventions and “hot spots” such as abortion clinics and research laboratories may draw angry protesters, and riots may result from racial tensions or confrontations. In all these cases, EMS and fire agencies should be involved in the planning process.

It is important that EMS agencies meet with local law enforcement and other public safety agencies (e.g., emergency management) to develop agreements concerning support during these critical events prior to one occurring. Many localities require a permit be issued for any large gathering, and crisis planning should begin upon notification of issuance of such a permit. Conduct a threat assessment to determine:

  • How many protesters might be anticipated;
  • If counterdemonstrations are possible;
  • If any of the groups or people involved have a history of violence;
  • If your system and the jurisdiction as a whole have the resources to not only deal with a potential disturbance, but to also maintain routine levels of service if one arises.

Lessons Learned

Experience with past civil unrest events in the U.S. has shown:

  • Multiagency preplanning is critical.
  • Responder safety is paramount.
  • For large-scale or multiday civil unrest, activate a secured multiagency coordination center (MACC).
  • Expect a large media response.
  • Establish task forces or strike teams when possible.
  • Arrange extra staffing and staging of equipment and personnel. Implement mutual aid agreements.
  • Immediate interagency cooperation and a unified command structure are essential.
  • Clear communications are necessary for effective operations.
  • Alcohol can be a significant contributor to violence.
  • Some protesters may use such tactics as protester training, safe houses, surveillance, video crews and radio communications.
  • Squirt guns may be used to spray ammonia, gasoline and other chemicals on responders.
  • Molotov cocktails are a serious danger and should be planned for.
  • Protesters may throw rocks, bricks, bottles, cans and fireworks at responders, or use slingshots or “wrist rockets” to shoot BBs, marbles, lug nuts and other similar items.
  • One tactic is to form a human chain through the interlocking of arms, legs and bodies to block streets and intersections.
  • Protesters may use locking devices consisting of steel and plastic PVC pipes to lock arms. Also, buckets, bicycle locks, drums and other devices can be used to anchor individuals to each other or fixed objects.
  • Protesters may place suspicious packages and call in bomb threats.
  • During civil unrest events, related and unrelated 9-1-1 call volume may increase.
  • Be prepared for decontamination, as you may have large numbers of people exposed to pepper spray and other irritants.


The Firefighters Support Foundation offers a training program, Fire/EMS Response to Civil Unrest, which is a great resource for individuals, agencies and trainers on this subject. This program is free to download; simply go to the training page at to access it. The program consists of a 40-minute video program and accompanying slides. It covers:

  • Types of events
  •  Dispatch issues
  • Body armor
  • The effects of alcohol
  • Coordination with police and other agencies
  • Approach strategies
  • The potential for violence
  • Lessons learned from previous events
  • Why no jurisdiction is too small
  • Proven tactics.


Safety is paramount for all responders during these types of events. Unfortunately, the likelihood that emergency responders will someday be called upon to respond to a civil unrest event or confrontation seems higher than ever before. Hopefully you will gain some information to take back to your agency to assist with planning and training. The more public safety agencies prepare for such incidents, the better they can respond to effectively manage any situation that arises.

August Vernon is operations officer for the Forsyth County (NC) Office of Emergency Management. He has been employed in emergency management for 11 years and has served as a member of the fire service and a fire service instructor, as well as a CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) operations specialist with the U.S. Army. Contact him at

Back to Top