How to Change Response Tactics in Times of Civil Unrest

Unlike responses to hurricanes, floods, or other natural hazards, civil disturbances are more likely to place emergency responders in harm’s way as the situation rapidly and unpredictably changes. To avoid becoming a target for angry crowds with projectiles and gunfire, personnel within the area of active fighting or unrest must be able to make decisions and triage incidents without hesitation.

Civil disturbances have been defined by the U.S. Department of Defense as: group acts of violence or disorder that are prejudicial to the public law and order. Civil disturbances typically take on one of two categories: (a) simple disobedience for the law; or (b) uncontrolled anarchy and rioting. There are numerous reasons for civil disobedience, which include: unruly fans at concerts or sporting events; unpopular decisions within college communities; different types of public protest/celebrations gone bad; unpopular court verdicts; out-of-favor political decisions; and recently the negative perception of law enforcement interactions by some citizens within communities.

Regardless of the reason, civil disturbances are not limited to a single particular area and have been known to occur from coast to coast in urban, suburban, and rural areas. All emergency response agencies must be prepared for this type of incident and be aware that civil disturbances may create situations whereby, emergency responders must function in a modified response mode in order to better ensure safe and efficient operations. At times, this may create confusion for response agencies that are not prepared, as these incidents require a change in tactics from the normal day-to-day operational framework that fire and emergency medical systems (EMS) personnel are accustomed to working within.

Managing a Crisis – Hazard Planning & Communication In order to prepare and mitigate civil disturbance incidents successfully, fire/EMS response agencies need to implement some tried and tested initiatives. One of the first initiatives that must be employed is planning. Planning is a key component for all significant initiatives and starts long before an incident occurs. This process should begin with the development of a hazard-specific annex or a section of the jurisdictions emergency operations plan/emergency management plan dedicated to civil disturbances. Civil disturbance incidents are labor intensive, usually involve multiple jurisdictions, and extend into multiple operational periods. These incidents also generate intense media coverage around the clock.

Planning for incidents include, but is not limited to: departmental call-backs, holdovers, up-staffing, automatic/mutual aid assistance from throughout the region and/or state, as well as the implementation of these plans through regular tabletop exercises. Planning continues at lower levels of the government through the development of policies or procedures in the fire, EMS, and law enforcement agencies; whereby, specific actions and steps are taken in the event such an incident occurs. By developing these policies and procedures in a tiered fashion, planners are able to address all types of civil disturbances, as well as any operational changes that may be implemented during an incident.

The plan also includes communications and an appropriate incident management structure. Incidents such as this require good communications and a unified command structure. Open and clear lines of communication coupled with an effective unified command presence would enhance strategic decision making and overall command and control of the incident. In some cases, it may be beneficial to open all emergency operation centers (multiagency coordination centers) in both the affected jurisdiction and at the state level. Emergency operation centers in surrounding jurisdictions also may need to open with at least a skeleton crew. By opening these centers, personnel are better equipped to facilitate requests in a timely fashion, thus preventing delays in assistance or additional resources that may be needed.

Joining Forces – Area Command & Multijurisdictional Response Similarly, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) area command concept is an excellent way to manage incidents that are dispersed over large geographic areas and evolve over multiple operational periods. They are frequently used to manage multiple incidents within a particular geographical area competing for the same resources where large-scale coordination of the overall incident is conducted at a higher jurisdictional level.

Moreover, another resource that could aid jurisdictions that find themselves inundated with a civil disturbance incident that lasts for a long duration (more than two or three days) is local or regional incident management teams. These teams are a component of the NIMS and consist of highly trained personnel who are capable of managing large manmade or natural disasters. They typically are called upon to allow agency administrators and key appointed/elected officials to remove themselves from the actual management of an incident, in order to provide decision making/support of an incident from a macro or jurisdictional level.

Response assignments using task forces is another initiative to be employed at civil disturbance incidents to improve responder safety. Task forces usually are assembled at predesignated staging areas outside the immediate troubled area. They often are made up of two engines, one ladder truck, one battalion chief, and a compliment of law enforcement units. Likewise, task forces for EMS incidents may include: (a) an engine company, medical transport unit, medical supervisor, and law enforcement; or (b) multiple medical transport units, a medical supervisor, and law enforcement.

The key thing to remember is that there is safety in numbers, and no fire or EMS unit should be operating alone in a theater of operation involving civil disturbances. The task force concept was used successfully in California during the 1992 Los Angeles riots (following the acquittal of law enforcement officers in the Rodney King trial), as well as within numerous other jurisdictions across the country since that time.

Enabling Decision Making Within the Hostile Area Another initiative to be implemented during civil disturbances is operational changes that increase situational awareness and responder safety. There is an old saying that “all politics are local,” this also seems to hold true when it comes to the safety of responders. Personnel operating in a particular geographic area inside an area of rioting have firsthand knowledge of the citizens in the area and when things are about to turn bad. Fire/EMS responders should be made aware of what sparked these incidents and remain ever vigilant not to exacerbate or escalate the situation.

It is important to push decision making at an incident scene to the lowest levels, giving incident commanders on scene the ability to quickly retreat from a hostile area if necessary. Responders then could maintain an increased level of situational awareness by assigning one person on each call as a lookout or observer. These individuals warn and inform crew members or the incident commander of pending safety issues with roaming crowds or bystanders at the scene. They also advise if law enforcement personnel are called away to another incident, thus leaving fire/EMS personnel to operate alone in a hostile area involving protesters and/or rioters.

Another method to help ensure safety of fire/EMS responders is to initiate the hit-and-run and swoop-in/swoop-out tactics during responses in areas of civil disturbances. These tactical considerations focus on preventing conflagrations and/or the removal of injured people from the area of active fighting or unrest. Fire suppression activities focus on preventing the spread of fire and protecting critical infrastructure. Defensive operations – for example, no interior firefighting, self-contained breathing apparatus usage, roof operations, or the laddering of structures – should be mandatory as these tactics allow fire/EMS personnel to become possible targets for projectiles or gunfire.

Operations instead should focus on quick a “knockdown” (or extinguishments) followed by a quick exit from the hazardous area. During EMS operations, crews should focus on rapid extrication/transportation from a troubled area. SWAT medics and armored personnel carriers may be needed to extricate critically injured victims on the frontlines, when it is unsafe for medical transport units to enter an active hostile area near the police lines. If personnel were not immediately able to enter the active riot area, casualty collection points outside the area would provide care for people who are injured.

Triaging Incidents – Let It Burn Another initiative to be implemented during times of civil disturbance is dispatch/response changes. Changes in emergency dispatches allow jurisdictions to better manage the increased call volume typically seen with civil disturbances. Sending a reduced assignment such as a task-force response permits additional units to remain available or respond to the additional call volume they may experience. Likewise, call triaging allows car, dumpster, or rubbish fires that are not a threat to any structures or people continue to burn in lieu of handling higher priority calls where structures and or life-safety issues need to take precedence over such “nuisance” incidents. These fires can be extinguished later after the higher priority calls have been mitigated and the area is safe to operate in.

Fire/EMS operations can present real challenges during times of civil unrest. Regardless of where or when these incidents occur, responder safety must remain the highest priority. Civil disturbances require fire/EMS organizations to function outside their normal comfort zones by making operational changes that enhance responder safety, protect critical infrastructures, manage risks, ensure effective communications, and develop appropriate incident management structures.

Preparations must begin long before these emergency-response incidents occur. Jurisdictions and/or organizations that fail to plan and respond to these events in an appropriate fashion run the risk of becoming overwhelmed by the magnitude of such incidents. This lack of preparation and response could translate into a higher number of casualties and the loss of critical infrastructure.

Michael E. Cox Jr.

Michael E. Cox Jr. is a 30-year veteran of the fire service and currently serves as a faculty member at the University of Maryland’s Fire and Rescue Institute, where he works as a member of the Institute’s Management Team. He began his fire service career as a volunteer at age 16 as a member of the Woodland Beach Volunteer Fire Department in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. He joined the Anne Arundel County Fire Department as a career employee in 1988 and advanced through the ranks to become the 10th fire chief of Anne Arundel County, where he led a combination career/volunteer force of 1,400 personnel until his retirement in December 2014. He holds an associate’s degree in emergency medical services from Anne Arundel Community College, a bachelor’s degree in fire science from the University of Maryland, and a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. A nationally registered emergency medical technician paramedic; he also is a state-certified emergency services instructor and a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. The national Center for Public Safety Excellence also has designated him as a Chief Fire Officer. He can be reached at:



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