Q&A: The fire service’s evolving role in mass violence response

Reviewing the impact of civil unrest, the need to coordinate with other agencies, plus training on active shooter and fire as a weapon


History shows that firefighters have long served as the initial community response to any tragedy. But as Fire Chief Todd Bower explains, the role of firefighters today has evolved beyond just first responder to being a true front line of defense for the communities they serve – and sometimes a front line of defense against violence.

“The advent of mobile devices has allowed more timely connections to communicating the citizenries’ need for help,” Bower notes. “In that regard, it has become more commonplace for people to be comfortable calling for, and being reliant on, the ability for the firefighters to handle any emergency, no matter the nature nor the size.”

Todd Bower serves as interim chief of the Denver Fire Department and member of the IAFC Terrorism and Homeland Security Committee, plus the NFPA 3000: Standard for Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program committee.
Todd Bower serves as interim chief of the Denver Fire Department and member of the IAFC Terrorism and Homeland Security Committee, plus the NFPA 3000: Standard for Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program committee.

To further examine the role of firefighters in preparing for and responding to mass violence events, FireRescue1 connected with Bower, who serves as interim chief of the Denver Fire Department and member of the IAFC Terrorism and Homeland Security Committee, plus the NFPA 3000: Standard for Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program committee.

What forms of mass violence are most prevalent for fire and EMS response efforts?

Shootings. As I am sure you are aware, the State of Colorado has unfortunately had its share of mass-casualty shootings. Incidents such as Columbine High School, the Aurora Theater, Platte Canyon High School, Araphoe High School, and the STEM School Highlands Ranch are examples of how mass violence continues to become of the modus operandi instead of the anomalies. The public sphere, albeit a school or a theatre, has been transformed into a prominent position for terrorists desiring to impose maximum destruction whilst also garnering enormous media coverage that circles the globe within minutes.

What types of training are becoming commonplace for mass violence response?

Active shooter. This has risen to the top of the heap, mostly due to the frequency of this type of event. Terrorists are not stupid. They know that inflicting mass violence across municipal boundaries can exacerbate the confusion and pandemonium. Therefore, the active shooter training exercises become more intricate and logistically challenging in order to work in a larger, more collaborative regional approach. Doing these types of trainings can also be cumbersome to get going and more intricate given the need for maintaining seamless communication that may span over different network infrastructures.

During the recent civil unrest, FR1 spoke to some fire service leaders engaged in specialized units, whether SWAT-assigned firefighters, TAC teams, PAC (police assist companies). What do you see as the role of these types of units in the future?

Commonplace. The reliance by the communities on public safety departments, the vast array of potential incidents, and the limited fiscal allocation almost mandates the need for cross-training of public safety personnel now and into the future.

As leaders of public safety agencies, we are charged with being the stewards of the peoples’ money while providing the protection of the communities we serve. During any incident, the importance of minimizing the reflex time to implement strategy and tactics cannot be underscored enough. The ability to have the available first responders trained and able to fulfil the needs of each unique incident can lessen the reflex time and increase the survivability of persons impacted by the event.

Emergency medical personnel prepare to load a simulated victim into an ambulance during a mass casualty training exercise, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019, in Cincinnati.
Emergency medical personnel prepare to load a simulated victim into an ambulance during a mass casualty training exercise, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Should all departments engage in active shooter training?

Yes, without question, all agencies need to engage in active shooter training. With the likelihood of mass violence type of events continuing to occur, there is an unfortunate need to ensure all personnel are highly proficient in the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary to handle these acts of terror.

The changing dynamics of all-hazards mitigation of mass violence events puts a different type of obligation on public safety agencies that is not going away. Learning to adapt and overcome to the nuances of approaches needed to preserve life and property shines a brighter spotlight on our paramilitary agency structures. The understanding of the mission and the chain of command lends to a greater efficiency of implementation of split-second decision-making on these scenes.

What can you share about fire being used as a weapon, either from terrorists or during civil unrest activities?

It’s effective. Those that want to do harm know the destructive characteristics of fire and the pandemonium that comes with using it to attack people. There’s a reason that it’s illegal to yell “fire” in a crowded movie theatre. Fire, left unchecked, can continue to do devastating damage, takes great many resources to contain, and has long-lasting impacts to the qualify of life of the people and the economics of the municipality.

How can firefighters prepare for such incidents?

Besides being tactically sound, having the mental strength to handle the human toll that can occur when fire is used in such a fashion. Focusing on the mental wellness of our members is vital. Having a culture of positive and inclusive comradery can pay dividends when trying to both prepare for and handle these types of incidents. While the official leadership pathway can lend value to assisting with resources for members, the ultimate value comes from the collaboration of the overall team.

How should fire departments best coordinate with other agencies (police, EMS, hospitals, etc.) to respond to such events?

Mutually developed SOPs, constant communication among agencies and dedicated training interactions. The mindset needs to shift from a local municipal perspective to a metro/regional approach. When calamities like this occur, there reality is that all agencies must work in concert to take care of like safety, incident stabilization and protecting the assets of the community. Therefore, the agency barriers must be removed to add the value that all agencies bring to the table.

What is the fire chief’s role in mass violence preparation?

As the chief executive of the agency, the chief should ensure that all command officers are subject-matter experts in this arena, that policies are developed with appropriate educational implementation, and that the community leaders are engaged in the discussions. Leaning in to the community for input and helping to establish appropriate expectations can have great value when the events unfortunately do occur.

What resources does the IAFC offer related to mass violence preparation?

A plethora. The IAFC has been very proactive and has a tremendous library of resources regarding these topics. The IAFC members and leaders are constantly adding value to the resources to the benefit of the greater good. Some resources:

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