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Lessons Learned from the Ferguson Riots

Reprinted with permission from Firehouse Magazine.

On Nov. 24, 2014, a grand jury in St. Louis County, MO, handed down no indictments on Police Officer Darren Wilson concerning the shooting of Michael Brown. The decision was long awaited and gave fire and EMS agencies plenty of time to plan after the civil disturbances that followed the shooting in August.

As one who worked for the City of St. Louis for 25 years, I have many friends and  contacts there. I had the opportunity to talk with many of them concerning the lessons learned from almost three weeks of rioting after the first incident, their planning for the day the decision would be handed down and their lessons learned from the second round of rioting and violence.

It all started when allegedly Brown and a friend were walking in the middle of a street. When Wilson, in a police car, pulled up alongside the men and asked them to move to the sidewalk. A fight reportedly broke out between Brown and Wilson and evidence later showed Brown punched Wilson in the face twice and wrestled for the officer’s gun while Wilson was seated in the police car. Other evidence in the police car confirmed the presence of Brown’s blood.

Witness Accounts

Various versions of the story floated around media outlets, depending on who they were talking to; there was no dash camera in the officer’s cruiser that could record or document the encounter. Some witnesses said Brown ran and Wilson drew his weapon after getting out of his police car in an attempt to stop Brown. Most of the protest was based on some witness statements that had Brown raising his arms to surrender while Wilson shot him. Evidence shown to the grand jury indicated Brown turned back to attack Wilson after initially running away. In an ABC interview, Wilson said he feared for his life, so he continued to fire his weapon until the threat was neutralized.

At the center were the Ferguson Fire Department (FFD) and Christian Hospital EMS (CHEMS), when riots broke out on the afternoon of Aug. 9 and then in a massive way on the night of Nov. 24 after the grand jury announcement was made. At the core of providing fire and EMS response were the FFD and CHEMS, a hospital-based EMS system that is the 9-1-1 provider for eight fire protection districts and municipalities in north St. Louis County. With 22 ambulances and 108 employees, CHEMS is the third-busiest 9-1-1 provider in Missouri, answering about 46,000 calls annually.

Many of the lessons learned from almost three weeks of rioting were used in the planning process for whenever the final decision would come down. One of the biggest lessons learned was the need for unified command between law enforcement, fire and EMS. Technically, it was the Ferguson Police Department’s jurisdiction, but the St. Louis County Police Department assumed overall command because of its larger size and the size of the incident. However, several days into the unrest, Governor Jay Nixon indicated that the Missouri Highway Patrol was being brought in to take control.

As fire and EMS realized that it did not appear that the first civil unrest incidents would end, it was necessary to coordinate with the police. In some cases, buildings burned when firefighters could not go in and in other cases EMS victims waited or were thrown in privately owned vehicles and taken to the police command post several blocks from the rioting.

The biggest challenge for fire and EMS in the initial riots was determining when a scene was secure to go into and then mirroring up the EMS or fire response with force protection. The largest challenge during the Nov. 24 riots was the sheer number of protestors, who outnumbered the police on the first night. It seems the police planning did not anticipate the large number of rioters and looters. Not helping matters was when Brown’s stepfather publicly announced “burn the bitch down” immediately after hearing the decision.

The first night of civil disturbance resulted in 21 buildings burning along with police vehicles in Ferguson. Some buildings were unreachable by firefighters because the situation was too dangerous and they were just allowed to burn. In some cases, fire companies and strike teams that were brought in to assist the FFD had to abandon their positions, disconnect hoselines from engines and leave the scene after they came under direct fire. Hoses had to be left lying in the street in order to make a quick exit.

The first priority for all fire and EMS personnel in periods of civil unrest is safety. The important lesson is coordination with law enforcement—do not go in until the area is secure and maintain force protection during fire and EMS operations.

Gary Ludwig, MS, EMT-P, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire chief of the Champaign, IL, Fire Department. He has a total of 37 years of fire, rescue and EMS experience, including St. Louis, MO, and Memphis, TN. Ludwig is a licensed paramedic and has a master’s degree in business and management.

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