Firefighters and law-enforcement agencies in Riverside County are practicing or discussing new federal guidelines that, in order to save more lives, recommend sending armor-wearing medics into mass-casualty attacks before shooters or bombers are subdued.
San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies and Rancho Cucamonga firefighters, meanwhile, are years ahead of the guidelines that the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued in September.
The tactic is a departure from the common practice of making firefighters wait in safe areas for the all-clear from police before entering a scene to tend to the wounded. The impetus for change, said San Bernardino County sheriff's Lt. Danielle Boldt, began with the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado that killed 13 people.
FEMA wrote in its report that 250 people have been killed in the United States since then in what it calls active-shooter and mass-casualty incidents. FEMA characterized those as "a reality in modern American life."
Medical, law enforcement and firefighting experts who convened after the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in Connecticut in December 2012 that killed 26 concluded that too many people have been bleeding to death.
"The faster you stop the bleeding, the greater the chance of survival," said Boldt, who oversees the joint training in Rancho Cucamonga. "In an active-shooter situation, we don't have the luxury (of time). It's the same thing with the Fire Department."
Under the guidelines, medics would not enter areas known as "hot zones" where bullets were still whizzing. Instead, after the first wave of police enter in hopes of taking out the attacker, a second group would escort medics into "warm zones" that the attacker had vacated, leaving victims behind.
FIRE, POLICE CONCERNS
Inland law-enforcement and fire officials discussed the issues that the new tactics raise. They include police and firefighters establishing common terminology and strategies and finding the money to pay for bullet-resistant vests and helmets for all firefighters.
"You have to look at the health and welfare of civilians who might be trapped and you have to look at the health and welfare of the firefighters," said John Hawkins, chief of the Riverside County Fire Department/Cal Fire.
Hawkins said the Riverside County Fire Chiefs Association met for a third time Dec. 19 to discuss the guidelines. They would like to have a plan in place two months from now, he said.
Riverside County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Ray Gregory said his department has been talking with Cal Fire about training together.
"If they change their policy, we will find a way to work it out," Gregory said.
Riverside city police officers and firefighters have already done limited training together.
"I can't say it's good or bad," said Brian Smith, president of the Riverside Police Officers Association. "Our concern would be as law enforcement, the fact now we have other individuals interdicted into the scene that we would be responsible for the security of and safety of, and that likely would cause a distraction. … Obviously getting medical aid to those in need is important. It's a tough balancing act."
Riverside Fire Capt. Tim Strack, president of the city firefighters union, said the city has not yet purchased the protective equipment. He said the training can't be used in real situations without the gear, and he isn't seeing firefighting grants being awarded to buy it. Some Riverside firefighters are more enthusiastic about entering potentially dangerous situations than others, he added.
"From my perspective, we have to be trained correctly, we have to have assurance that we are going to be safe and police are going to be on board," Strack said.
Strack and Corona Deputy Chief David Duffy said they are looking closely at the model set by San Bernardino County deputies and the firefighters in the Rancho Cucamonga Fire District.
Three deputies would escort three or four firefighters, including one paramedic, into the warm zones.
Boldt said they have trained together for seven years but have not yet responded to any emergencies. The city of Rancho Cucamonga initially received a grant to pay for the safety equipment and found money for more in subsequent years.
She said deputies and firefighters have learned a common language and move in lock step.
"The way we have overcome the issues is training together, over and over again," four times a year, Boldt said.
San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon would like to see the guidelines followed in other areas where his department patrols, spokeswoman Cindy Bachman said.
"Firefighters go into rescues and fires, and often it's not safe," said San Bernardino County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig. "If this provides us safety and we can make a difference, we want to do it."
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