With an ever-increasing need for joint police/fire ops, how often do we interact? Grant Coffey discusses trends and actions to consider.
I grew up in a family of public servants – eight firefighters and four police officers. It felt so natural to be around them. Odd schedules, frequent absences, rowdy friends, serious injury and mental stress was normal to me. But after several years into my own career in the fire services, I started to look closer at the differences between firefighters and police officers.
IT TAKES TWO TO TANGO
Firefighters and police officers share many common characteristics. We share a paramilitary structure, very specific and disciplined SOP’s, we generally attract type A personalities and work in adrenaline producing and potentially dangerous situations. These common factors form a bond that can ensure a strong working relationship. There are, however, some differences that can create a rift between us – complicating cooperation during difficult and dangerous emergency responses.
So, besides the oft-repeated joke of donut eating cops and firefighters in their recliners, what’s the deal with these differences and can we do anything to overcome them? Consider this: how often do we interact in a meaningful way on a regular basis? I mean, how often do you talk after an incident, train together, regularly meet and discuss operational issues? Police truly are your partners and are integral to the successful outcome of a joint emergency response. If you accept the fact that a problem won’t get any better by itself, why not take some active steps forward together?
WHO’S ON FIRST?
I’d like to offer some observations from nearly 40 years of experience as a firefighter, working with local Police agencies. In today’s world, there is an ever-increasing likelihood for joint operations at complicated scenes with multiple pressures, threats and hazardous materials. You know the drill, maybe you’ve even been there personally, involved in a serious conflict between your two agencies. Was it a police car blocking your lay-in line? Lack of cooperation or assistance at a first aid scene? Inability to communicate via radio or confusion of agency terms or direction? Lack of clarity about who’s in charge of what? Frustration at meetings where it seems like you are speaking entirely different languages?
I think the key to improving this relationship, isn’t to focus on your differences but embrace them and each other. In doing so, I promise that you will soon view your differences in a new way. The solution is not to develop or invent new “combination” fire/PD personnel, that can’t do either job well, but to approach this in a way that embraces the fact that we are better together……
IT’S GREEK TO ME
Years ago, I created a first for our fire department in Portland, Oregon – a chief officer assignment as a fire/police liaison. Basically, as two first response agencies, we had drifted apart enough so that we became unfamiliar with each other’s supervisors, procedures and culture. The result was mistrust, confusion and serious incidents at emergency scenes that affected both our safety and our ability to effectively serve the public.
Over the years due to various factors, local police officers stopped coming to the stations where they used to spend significant time building camaraderie. In the process, we lost familiarity and trust – we stopped being family. My first order of business was to learn more about each other, and in the process, gain each other’s trust.
TO KNOW IS TO TRUST
We wanted to start with efforts that were proven, time-tested, and that both sides already had confidence in. Our first approach was to promote more interaction, not just at emergency scenes, but at casual events and locations to start to reinstate the familiarity and trust factor. We actively invited police officers back to our fire stations and promoted mutual attendance at events like National Night Out, Union sponsored holiday events, retirement and awards ceremonies, etc. In addition, we asked for periodic cross representation at regular operational briefings to get face time and a feeling for what the issues were in each other’s eyes.
TRIED AND TRUE
This was just to break the ice, but our goal was to get at the heart of tactical issues that could affect our safety and effectiveness at joint emergency scene operations. My approach here was to use a train the trainer approach and to partner with the appropriate contact in the Police Department. To better address initial trust concerns – training would also be delivered by one of their own, in a collaborative fashion.
We eased into relationship building by preparing a talking point sheet of issues we wanted them to know about our operations and included a short list of questions that we wanted to ask them. We encouraged them to do the same. I found it very beneficial to break the ice with this process. We met with a patrol supervisor representative of their choice and discussed general issues, as well as strategies and ideas for future interactions. We asked to jointly deliver the findings at one of their regular ops briefing or officer’s training.
One of our first efforts was to address the pressing issue of police response to emergency scenes, before the arrival of fire crews. We already had our own video team in our fire training division and produced a video about Police response on Fire Scenes. The key was to use a police officer as a spokesperson, detailing his experience about injuries he sustained by attempting a rescue in a burning structure without the benefit of the personal protective equipment that firefighters use on every call. It was well received and proved to be an effective joint campaign.
Ordinary “street response” issues will be with us forever, so we also focused on “special ops”, or specialized teams. We chose this topic because they already had built-in agency credibility and some already consisted of members from both agencies. Some of these fire/police teams had been successfully working together for years and we wanted to use that model. A local State Hazmat Response Team in Gresham was such an example. They had a successful model of longtime joint fire and police members on their team. The Portland Fire Hazmat Team and the Portland Police Drug and Vice Unit also had a very successful joint response program to hundreds of clandestine drug lab operations. In addition, the Police SERT Team has had Fire Medics integrated into their program for years. We began to build on the credibility of these programs and implemented joint training and operational policy review, involving both parties. During TOPOFF 4, a national radiological exercise, hundreds of hours were spent by these teams, in meetings, training exercises, and joint EOC staffing efforts.
PLAY TOGETHER TO STAY TOGETHER
What does the future hold? Whatever it is, we are stronger together. Here are a few trends and issues that will test our working relationship:
- Technology: drones, software programs for human-based threats, personal protective equipment. Many of these innovations benefit both police and fire and we should work together on ways to integrate these tools into our joint operations.
- Large-scale events, both natural and man-caused, create the need to work with each other, not against each other. There is an ever-increasing potential of WMD, active shooter and mass casualty events, not to mention the ever-present natural disasters.
- Response to selected special skills teams like DVD and SERT. Because of this potential, our “special ops” personnel should develop joint response SOP’s that can also benefit the rest of our street response personnel.
- With ongoing budget and political pressure, the advantages of joint community assembly or training facilities can be explored. Working together is a good strategy in a politically charged climate, as well as helping to counter the pressure of dwindling budgets.
Here’s the bottom line: with ever-present threats, police and fire are the lines between them and the safety of those that we serve. Someone once said, “There are two things we protect, our community and ourselves – you can’t do one without the other.” We must work together, to the best of our ability! No matter the state of your current relationship, it can always be better. The stakes are too high. Here are some actions to consider:
- Ramp up your non-emergency interaction, without delay: Consider joint union functions, awards events, holidays and especially regular visits by firefighters to police stations and vice versa. It will start to breed comradery.
- Begin periodic joint presence at regular crew or team briefings: When you can, brief each other on Intel, tips to help each other, new equipment and PPE information, general question and answers and encourage an atmosphere that promotes positive suggestions.
- Use the Train the Trainer model: Promote trust by training and using each other’s personnel – thereby fostering immediate confidence in your programs.
- Integrate: Encourage cross representation at various agency training sessions, which speeds up the process of facetime and agency cultural understanding. Invite each other to Advanced ICS classes, field drills, EOC walkthroughs, civilian CERT team training, hazmat, and first aid re-cert classes, etc.
- Encourage special team interaction: Cross staff when appropriate, like water patrols or river rescue, SWAT/SERT, DVD for clan lab response, emergency management overhead teams, EOC staffing, etc.
- SOP familiarization: Convene a group to review any touchy policy areas and help each other improve policy and learn more about appropriate procedures, like evidence preservation for fire and initial fire scene response for police. Focus on scene safety procedures info that you want them to know, like hardcover or universal precautions on EMS scenes. When finished, brief each other’s personnel with an “arm in arm” approach.
- Communication: With internal rank and communication structures that can be confusing, learn who to talk to before an issue blows up, and, the right person to talk to on the emergency scene. Handling these issues face to face early, will help to avoid downstream problems.
Remember, when the balloon goes up, we are better together. It’s up to you to make it happen!
Guest Post Bio: Grant Coffey is a retired Fire & Rescue Hazmat Team Coordinator from Portland, Oregon, College Fire Science Instructor, and CBRNE expert of nearly 40 years. Grant currently hosts CBRNE response training videos online at FLIR.com/PRIMED.