Fire When Ready: A Needs-Based Analysis of Firearms in the U.S. Fire Sector

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Christopher Zam

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

What are the most relevant factors to consider when establishing firearms policies within the U.S. fire sector? What are the implications for fire organizations opting to implement gun-carry models? Can a Policy Options Analysis offer practical gun policy guidance for fire jurisdictions throughout the United States, or does the complexity of gun-carry models demand tailor-made solutions for individual fire agencies? These three questions underpin the research conducted within this thesis.

Although there is no consensus on whether guns are an appropriate tool for the U.S. fire sector, firearms have been used in the U.S. fire service for more than seven decades. In recent years, an uptick in the number of fire responses involving hostile actors and a steady increase in active shooter events have pushed more departments toward arming personnel.[1] This research revealed that U.S. fire agencies lack a standard rubric for making the critical decision to adopt firearms and provides fire sector stakeholders and policymakers a better understanding of critical issues that inform the decisions to embrace or eschew guns.

This discussion is framed by providing a background on the debate over arming firefighters. It revealed that although many fire departments have adopted firearms carry policies, there is currently a lack of focused literature related to how those departments arrived at their decisions to arm personnel. This absence of literature validated the need for this research. Since the fire service fails to maintain common standards for taking on and maintaining gun programs, a literature review filled that information vacuum with an examination of the law enforcement (LE) sector, education sector, safety agency sector, and various levels of government and their gun program challenges and concerns.

In its examination of gun use in the law enforcement and education sectors, this research addressed weapons program concerns such as marksmanship, infrequent gun use, weapons security problems, and the dangers of friendly fire and unintentional discharges. The study of U.S. police departments revealed a long history of inconsistent performance in shooting accuracy, inadequate compliance with safe gun storage practices, and a perennial theme of unintentional discharge mishaps. As a general rule, fire agency decision-makers should not look to fashion gun carry programs in the image of police law enforcement entities.

Furthermore, this research scrutinized federal, state, and local government roles to reveal how these bodies influence the creation of gun policies. The study of government shows that although state-level legislators generally drive firearms policies, the federal government can establish gun laws when conditions are favorable. The Law Enforcement Safety Act (LEOSA) of 2004 serves as evidence that national gun policies are achievable.

The research also analyzed safety agencies and the ways they impact workplace gun policies. Remarkably, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the United States Fire Administration (USFA), and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) have collectively failed to establish gun safety rules and regulations for U.S. fire department workplaces. Safety-agency inertia must be transformed into action to enhance workplace safety throughout the fire service. Furthermore, this study of safety organizations confirmed that the NFPA has established more than 300 codes and standards for U.S. fire departments.[2] Therefore, the NFPA is uniquely suited to take on the creation and enforcement of gun safety laws for U.S. fire entities.

Interestingly enough, fire service members may not need guns to accomplish their homeland security mission. Upon viewing the figures available from the NFPA for the years 2010–2019, there is virtually no indication that acts of violence play any significant role in the volume of firefighter injuries.[3] A careful examination of the relevant data for the past decade reveals that firefighter deaths attributable to violence accounted for just over 1% of the total firefighter line of duty casualties.[4] Even though statistics imply that guns are rarely needed, many fire agencies continue to authorize firearms use. Therefore, it must suffice to acknowledge the argument against arming firefighters and continue with the conversation of how to develop best practices in this arena.

This work included a Policy Options Analysis of three fire sector gun models and three distinct gun carry programs’ merits and drawbacks. The Sunnyvale, California, Department of Public Service; Loveland, Colorado Tactical Fire Teams, and Concealed Carry frameworks were chosen for comparison due to their distinctive features and their ability to persist. The Department of Public Service (DPS), Tactical Fire Team, and concealed carry models were measured against each other for efficacy across a continuum of performance indicators. Program costs, response times, urban versus rural value, gun law tie ins, and political implications of these models were compared and contrasted. The research illustrated that none of these three models have a universal, clear-cut advantage over the others. Instead, stakeholders need to accept that each of these three models is inherently flawed to varying degrees. Imperfect as these three gun programs may be, however, they should not be overlooked as they provide much-needed perspective for fire service decision-makers.

This research ended with four principal findings. First, fire agencies should follow the gun templates used within the education sector for gun training, handling, and storage. More than 20 years of unsurpassed safety statistics insist that the education sector has developed best firearm practices for an industry composed of traditionally unarmed civil servants.

Second, this work demonstrated that the U.S. federal government can create national gun policies for fire sector organizations. Although Congress’ enumerated powers generally prohibit its involvement in comprehensive gun legislation, the establishment of LEOSA law following 9/​11 is proof that stakeholder collaboration across all government levels is possible. Politicians, legislators, pundits, and the public should continue to contemplate the usefulness of one national gun policy for first responders.

Another core finding of this research is that national safety agencies have completely failed the U.S. fire service. All four of the most respected fire safety organizations have withdrawn from gun policy conversations. Despite claims by OSHA, NIOSH, the USFA, and the NFPA that firefighter health and safety is of paramount importance, none of these entities offers meaningful standards or guidelines for safe gun handling, cleaning, storage, or usage within workplaces. The examination of these particular agencies concluded that the NFPA is best suited for policy guidance and enforcement. To date, the NFPA has created hundreds of standards for the U.S. fire service; thus, it is likely that its influence could facilitate the adoption of universal workplace gun safety protocols.

The final key revelation is that semantics can significantly impact the public’s perception of gun carry models. DPS of Sunnyvale, California, best exemplifies the influence of semantics on civilian attitudes. Research conducted here notes that the overwhelming majority of objections to the DPS model revolve around fiscal interests, logistical concerns, training obstacles, and frictions over police unions’ and fire unions’ conflicting interests. Interestingly, minimal political or public outrage exists over placing firearms in the hands of DPS employees. When arming firefighters, organizations should consider that a change in agency title could facilitate acceptance of firearms carriage models. Similarly, rebranding employees as public safety officers could reduce public anxieties that are often attached to the notion of arming firefighters.

Firearms policies already exist in fire departments located throughout the United States, and violent responses and active shooter incidents continue to provoke fire service interest in adopting gun carry programs. Although many U.S. citizens oppose firearms acquisition for ethical or philosophical reasons, all of us must partake in gun policy deliberations. Fire sector gun program architecture is still relatively new and flexible. Those who retreat from involvement in this debate are missing an opportunity to contribute to the creation of safer, more robust policies.

 

 

[1] Jennifer A. Taylor and Regan Murray, Mitigation of Occupational Violence to Firefighters and EMS Responders (Emmitsburg, MD: U.S. Fire Administration, 2017), 28, 55. https://www.usfa.fema.gov/​downloads/​pdf/​publications/​mitigation_of_occupational_violence.pdf. This USFA report acknowledges the gap in EMS and firefighter training and equipment, and recommends a “windshield” approach. In summary, personnel should remain in their vehicles and call for police backup when violence is expected or encountered. Additionally, the report confirms that exposure to violence is a growing problem for fire sector emergency responders.

[2] “NFPA Overview,” accessed June 13, 2020, National Fire Protection Association (NDPA), https://www.nfpa.org/​overview.

[3] Richard Campbell and Joseph Molis, “United States Firefighter Injuries in 2018,” NFPA Journal, Nov. 1, 2019, under “Nature and Cause of Fireground Injuries,” https://www.nfpa.org/​News-and-Research/​Publications-and-media/​NFPA-Journal/​2019/​November-December-2019/​Features/​FF-Injuries.

[4] Rita Fahy, Jay Petrillo, and Joseph Molis, Firefighter Fatalities in the United States (Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association, 2020), https://www.nfpa.org/​News-and-Research/​Data-research-and-tools/​Emergency-Responders/​Firefighter-fatalities-in-the-United-States.

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