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Flashpoint: February 2013

In my blog at www.firefightingincanada.com in January, in which I explored some issues brought up by the line-of-duty deaths in Webster, N.Y., on Christmas Eve, I noted that I wasn’t aware of any shooting incidents involving Canadian firefighters, but the murder of four RCMP officers in Mayerthorpe, Alta., in March 2005 should serve to show that uniformed responders can be targets in this country as well as in the United States.

February 5, 2013
By Peter Sells

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In my blog at www.firefightingincanada.com in January, in which I explored some issues brought up by the line-of-duty deaths in Webster, N.Y., on Christmas Eve, I noted that I wasn’t aware of any shooting incidents involving Canadian firefighters, but the murder of four RCMP officers in Mayerthorpe, Alta., in March 2005 should serve to show that uniformed responders can be targets in this country as well as in the United States.

At the end of that blog I asked for input regarding tactics, equipment and procedures related to firefighter safety with respect to gunfire. Minutes after the blog was posted online, I received several emails with some very good links and suggestions. One person suggested I speak with Fire Chief Hugh Murray at Oro-Medonte Fire & Emergency Services in Ontario.

Murray, as a district chief at the time, was the incident commander at a reported car fire in the large circular driveway of a rural residence on Dec. 19, 2001. As firefighters tackled the burning vehicle, they noticed that it was full of combustible materials, including a propane tank. There was also a body evident, although the well-involved fire precluded any possibility of a successful rescue. The fire appeared to have been intentionally set. Murray contacted his deputy chief and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). While waiting for assistance, Murray went up to the front door of the house but received no response to his knock or his shouts to anyone inside. The deputy chief arrived, and as he and Murray conferred on the driveway they heard “Ping! Ping! Ping!” around them, and realized they were under fire from the house.

Ordering everyone to bail into the ditch, Murray and the deputy alerted the OPP to the situation. The OPP officers arriving on scene took up tactical positions and awaited the Tactical Rescue Unit (TRU). The firefighters were pinned down in the ditch for several hours on a cold December evening. The pumper was still running with all its lights on. OPP officers asked for instructions to shut off the apparatus, but sure enough, the officer who entered the cab activated the siren before finding the correct switches. At one point, the shooter came out of the house a short distance, brandishing a rifle, then went back inside.

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Eventually, the TRU team entered the house to confirm that the shooter had taken his life. The body in the car was that of his common-law wife. There is no way to know anything for sure, but it is clear that his actions were not well reasoned or meticulously planned, as was the case with the shooter in West Webster, N.Y. The fact that no responders were hit by the Oro-Medonte shooter may indicate that he was trying to scare the firefighters away from the car fire, not to kill them. Was his venture outside of the house a tactical recon or attempt at suicide-by-cop?

During the post-incident debrief, a police officer said the firefighters should have shut down the apparatus as soon as possible. In essence, the cop expected that firefighters would have the tactical mindset, training and equipment of police officers, and would act accordingly. Firefighters asked why the shooter was not taken down when he ventured out the door, and the cops explained that at that time they had no indication whether there were any additional shooters in the house, and they were not yet adequately staffed to engage multiple bad guys. So, similarly, firefighters did not have the tactical experience to perform a risk assessment for a possible assault on the house.

Murray says he looks at things differently today. “I certainly look at a bigger picture now,” he says. “Doing a size-up would include looking more around the property and not just focusing on the car fire. Having the police respond right away and not going to the house to see if someone was home would have been more careful. We assumed the fire was set by the person that was in the car. I wouldn’t assume that today. We placed our apparatus right in front of the home, which put us in a spot where we had to leave the equipment.”

Police officers and firefighters have largely different skill sets, and two distinct sets of tactical objectives that require different paradigms of risk assessment. For a firefighter, time is the enemy and is usually of the utmost importance; for a cop facing an entrenched shooter, time can be an ally and haste could get you wasted. These differences are critical. Most of the literature and research on fire response to shooting incidents focuses on joint operations to known shootings, some of them mass killings such as Columbine, Newtown or ècole Polytechnique. Incidents such as those in Webster and Oro-Medonte are of a different sort.

It is imperative that firefighters withdraw – or not advance – at the first sign of danger until police have secured a scene.


Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo


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