In a profession where staffers are known to pack extra equipment into their belt loops, a few EMS and fire providers in Bethel Township, Ohio, are adding just a little more kick—firearms.
For about a year, the Bethel Township Fire and EMS Department has allowed first responders to carry concealed weapons on emergency calls as a way to protect themselves in an area where having law enforcement respond to calls in a timely manner when needed can be a challenge due to reduced staffing.
The idea to let first responders carry weapons was hatched after budget cuts reduced the number of available officers in the response area served by the department, says Bethel Township Fire and EMS Department Chief Jacob King.
“Law enforcement is a huge piece of this,” King says. “When you’re lacking a lot of assistance, you have to change the way you do business.”
King’s department handles 2,100 calls a year, some 1,600 of them for medical emergencies. King says there have been times when his staff hasn’t felt a scene was safe and the delay in getting law enforcement support has made the wait to render aid too long.
“The ones that do carry [guns] feel safer,” King says, adding that just a few members participate in the program.
Under the Bethel Township program, staff members who hold concealed carry gun permits through the state of Ohio may carry them while on duty. Before doing so, King says, they’re provided significant training on when and how to use them. So far, he says, not one provider has used their weapon in the line of duty.
Word of the Bethel Township Fire Department gun program has surfaced at a time when there have been intense conversations within the field on EMS staff safety and what may be done about it. Although first responder safety is always an issue, concerns escalated to a heightened level of awareness in December when a man in Webster, N.Y., set fire to his home and then shot at firefighters responding to the blaze. Four were shot and two were killed in the ambush.
Then in April 2013, a man in Gwinnett County, Ga., called in a medical emergency. When firefighters responded to the house, he took them hostage. Police SWAT team members eventually gained access to the home and killed the man. The firefighters later said the man admitted to them he called for medical help because he didn’t think they would be armed.
Even before those incidents, there had been an increased focus on responder safety. Indeed, street safety classes teach EMS responders how to react in unsafe conditions. And more agencies are getting bulletproof vests for their employees. For instance, in March, Dorchester County, Md., officials voted to allow the county’s emergency services department to shop for bulletproof vests after a crew showed up for a seizure call only to find out the seizure was secondary to a gunshot wound and the scene was unsecured when the team got there.
The decision to carry guns is a personal one for every department, says King, and it may not be right for every situation. In the case of Bethel Township, they’re simply providing the same rights that every other Ohio resident has to carry a concealed gun. “And in no way, shape or form do we ever want to inflict harm against any of our citizens,” adds King.
Likewise, King says, the decision to let staff carry their own weapons isn’t an effort for them to replace law enforcement. Instead, it’s a way for his staff to feel comfortable helping people where they might not otherwise feel safe.
“We saw several calls that would require immediate [medical] intervention to help save a person’s life and we would just sit and wait,” King says.
“They didn’t have the opportunity to even do something,” he adds. “When I don’t have the opportunity to even try to save someone’s life—that gets to me more than when I make a mistake.”