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Flashpoint: March 2013

I would like to thank readers who responded to my blog at in January and to my Flashpoint column in the February issue of Fire Fighting in Canada, as I continue to explore the phenomenon of firefighters being ambushed by sniper fire.

March 4, 2013 
By Peter Sells

I would like to thank readers who responded to my blog at in January and to my Flashpoint column in the February issue of Fire Fighting in Canada, as I continue to explore the phenomenon of firefighters being ambushed by sniper fire.

Despite past incidents of this type, some of which I described in the February column, there is not a lot of information available that is specifically applicable. What is available relates almost exclusively to fire-department response to mass-casualty incidents, or to incidents of known weapons fire or other violent acts. Those are, of course, valid topics of discussion, involving inter-agency co-operation and co-ordinated joint operations, but are not the same as an unanticipated sniper attack.

As I wrote this column, I was at JFK International Airport, named after a young president who succumbed to an ambush. One of the favourite targets for the conspiracy theorists is the fact that immediately after the first bullet passed through the president’s throat, the driver of the car slowed down in response to Mrs. Kennedy’s screams for help. The theory goes that this was to allow Lee Harvey Oswald, or the CIA, a second clear head shot.

Supporters of this version of events say it appears that the driver violated the accepted tactic of an official limousine speeding away at the first indication of trouble. Unfortunately for the proponents, the theory falls apart on this same point; that driving tactic was instituted in response to the circumstances of that president’s murder.


Therein lies the task ahead: what tactics do we develop to protect present and future firefighters from the snipers’ sights? I propose that we apply the hierarchy of controls as we would to any other health and safety problem.

Elimination is not a viable option, unfortunately. The idea of a society without civilian ownership of firearms is completely unrealistic, however desirable it may be (sorry, hunters and target shooters, but this is an opinion column and that happens to be my opinion).

Substitution, the second most desirable control strategy, is likewise not possible, although it would be fun to try it. We could substitute paintball airguns in place of firearms, or,  even better, the kind of toy gun that Wile E. Coyote uses, with a little flag that says “Bang!” that pops out of the barrel. Then, those fanatics who insist on owning guns with high-capacity magazines full of little “Bang!” flags would finally see how silly they look to the rest of us.

Administratively, we could decide that we will not send firefighters to any calls, or past a defined proximity to any calls, involving weapons; but that would work only for incidents of known or suspected violence. If we knew it were going to be an ambush, it wouldn’t be an ambush, would it?

Engineering controls consist of physically separating the worker from the hazard, through isolation, enclosure, or some other mechanical fashion such that there is no possibility of contact or contamination. We can’t physically isolate the firefighter from the fire ground unless and until someone develops remote-controlled firefighting robots.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is the control of last resort. PPE is the choice when we have admitted or conceded that we will place workers directly in harm’s way with an accepted and regulated method of protection to mitigate the harm they may face.

The fire chief in Hemet, Ohio, where firefighters were issued body armour in 2008, was quoted in the Press-Enterprise newspaper in California, as saying, “It would be too much weight if we had to put vests on every day.” So the vests are worn only a handful of times each year, rendering it unlikely that they would be effective in a sniper attack.

So are we out of options? I don’t think so, but we are left with choices to make. We need to develop, in partnership with law enforcement, a comprehensive set of conditions or circumstances under which firefighters will immediately withdraw or stage at a safe distance, and a complete education program for firefighters and incident commanders for rapid recognition of those conditions and circumstances. If this looks like some sort of hybrid responsive administrative control, that’s essentially what it is.

I’m not sure that the regular rules apply here, unless we are so afraid that we simply can’t do our jobs.

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 and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo.

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