Should fire chiefs give firefighters guns?
Before deciding whether or not to allow firefighters and EMTs to carry concealed firearms, give careful thought to these five factors
For the past five years I have spent many hours developing and teaching a course called "Pre-Meditated Responder Ambush." One topic raises its head every class: Do you think firefighters should be allowed to carry a weapon?
Unfortunately, like most things in our profession, this is not a simple yes or no answer.
First, let me be clear on my personal views. I am a firm believer in the Second Amendment and that all citizens who are lawfully capable of owning and carrying a weapon should be allowed to do so.
I also believe that carrying a gun and using a gun are two drastically different propositions.
Last, I believe that a gun is a tool, and as a tool, I would no more tell an organization that they should or should not allow their members to carry a concealed weapon while on duty than I would presume to tell them which attack line to pull on every fire, or what size supply line they should use.
Personal views aside, there some facts about this issue — the pluses and the minuses — that I have come to know well after 30 years in the fire service, 20 of those attached to a tactical team as a medic.
The pluses are few. Having firefighters armed with a concealed weapon offers a measure of protection and the ability to fight back on a lethal level should a lethal threat present itself.
That's really about it for the pluses.
On the minus side, there are five major ones to contend with.
To me, this is a weak excuse not to do something used by people who are too lazy to really get into the issue at hand, or as a way to dismiss an idea entirely.
The fact of the matter is that liability can be overcome with policies, practices and training. Police departments all over the country send armed officers out on a daily basis and successfully manage liability — some better than others, of course.
2. Two jobs, one person
Ask anyone who carries a gun for living and they will tell you that keeping care and custody of a weapon is a full-time job. Imagine trying to perform an extrication, even a relatively simple one, and making sure that your weapon is secured, but accessible in case a threat appears.
You cannot perform your essential duties as a firefighter or a medic and keep proper care and custody of a weapon. That being said, I can see nothing that would prevent a member of the crew, say the company officer or battalion chief, from stepping back from the action to be the armed eyes and ears looking for trouble on a scene.
Firefighters and medics work hard to cultivate the perception that we are here to help. Is the presence of an armed firefighter, or even a firefighter wearing ballistic protection, a deviation from the perception?
First of all, I would advocate that any personnel who carries a weapon do so in a concealed fashion. As I see it, if a firefighter is allowed to carry a weapon, it should be for defensive purposes only.
Openly displaying a weapon is itself an offensive action, in my opinion. The definition of third-degree assault is, to paraphrase, creating the belief in another that they may be subject to harm by another person's actions or statements.
Do fire and EMS responders want to risk creating that barrier or fear in our customers?
4. Role confusion
Again, the introduction of a concealed weapon into our workspace should be for defensive purposes only. Personnel need clear guidelines on when, where and how it would be appropriate to draw or display a weapon.
Clear rules are a must if an organization decides to allow its personnel to carry concealed weapons. I would hate to see a firefighter flourishing a weapon during, say, at a domestic violence call, and the presence of that weapon escalated the violence.
In that situation, the right thing to do is leave the area and let law enforcement handle the situation, not escalate the situation by introducing a firearm into the scenario and trying to manage the incident.
This is the big one. If personnel are going to carry a weapon, even a concealed weapon, they should be required to train. Standing 10 feet from a paper target and plunking rounds is not adequate training.
Police officers in Missouri are required to complete at least two hours of firearms training annually, but most departments require up to 24 hours annually. Tactical officers receive a minimum of 16 hours a month according to guidelines published by the National Tactical Officers Association, plus another eight hours per month for specialty units like snipers.
The point is that when someone finds themselves in a life-or-death situation and reaches for a firearm to defend themselves, the usual biological rules don't apply. Heart rates soar to 180 beats per second or higher. Respirations catapult and adrenaline screams into your system.
All these physiological responses are what Lt. Col. Dave Grossman refers to as "condition black." In this state, your fine motor skills are diminished, your hearing is muted and your vision becomes myopic.
These responses will make you less effective in using a weapon if you have never experienced (through training) these symptoms.
That's why training should incorporate as closely as possible the conditions you will face when defending your life. That's a tall order, but it can be accomplished.
Work with your law enforcement partners to develop relevant, real-life training that will allow you to inoculate yourself from some of these stressors, or a least recognize them and develop strategies to deal with them.
So after all that, let's revisit the original question: Should firefighters be able to carry concealed weapons on duty?
The answer is: It depends.
If you and your organization go into this with your eyes wide open and consider all the "what ifs," then I don't see any reason not to allow personnel with the training and the maturity, backed up by well thought out policies, practices and a strict training regiment, to carry a concealed weapon for the purpose of defending themselves and their crew.
If your department can't meet those criteria, leave the weapons to the experts.
This article, originally published on Aug. 3, 2016, has been updated.