Equipment & Gear, Terrorism & Active Shooter

Community Tensions in Jersey City, NJ, Force Body Armor and Protective Issues for EMS into the Spotlight

Issue 5 and Volume 41.

The summer of 2014 started like any other summer in many large American cities. As the weather turned warm, street violence increased. Yet, as the summer progressed, community tensions increased as well.

The first sign of difficulties arose when a local teenager was shot and killed by a Jersey City (N.J.) police officer during an altercation. For an area that normally enjoys positive community/law enforcement relations, this incident raised tensions.

As the community awaited the results of an investigation, the stakes were raised when a rookie Jersey City police officer was ambushed and killed in his patrol car while responding to a reported robbery in progress.

Officer Melvin Santiago, on the job for just seven months, was killed outside of a 24-hour pharmacy while still in his police vehicle as he and his partner responded to a disturbance at the store located on a main thoroughfare in Jersey City around 4 a.m. The suspect grabbed a gun from a security guard after momentarily incapacitating him.

The assailant walked out of the store as he bragged to a customer that he was going to be famous and waited for officers to arrive. He shot at the police vehicle as it pulled up to the store, fatally striking Officer Santiago before he could react. The gunman, who was wanted in connection with another recent homicide, was then killed in a firefight with other arriving officers.

Fear engulfed the city, and tensions rapidly increased. The wife of the gunman stated that she wished more officers had been killed, saying, “He should have taken more with him.”1

Another local resident was quoted by local media as saying, “they [police] treat us blatantly with disrespect.”

Just a day later, two police officers were sitting in their vehicle when a fence post sharpened into a spear was thrown into their open passenger window. A struggle ensued as the perpetrator attempted to disarm one of the officers, and ultimately the suspect was shot through the vehicle door by officers.

With each event, the uneasiness in the local community increased. As evidence of the growing tension, a large roadside memorial was put up not only for the initial individual killed by police, but also for the gunman who had shot and killed the police officer. It was removed and painted over by city administration a day later.

As local media repeatedly reported, public opinion was rapidly turning against local law enforcement and other city services. During one television broadcast, a city resident was quoted, “They shot that boy last week. Yeah, people are going to declare war on the police. People are real out here.”2

As tensions continued, credible intelligence gathered by law enforcement indicated that targeted hits were possible. False alarm calls increased, and additional intelligence indicated that individuals might assault or shoot Jersey City EMTs and paramedics in an attempt to ensure rapid response by police officers, thereby drawing them into a target zone. It now appeared that EMS personnel were being used as pawns in a deadly scheme by a violent element in an otherwise civil community.3

On July 15, 2014, Jersey City Medical Center (JCMC) EMS received a notification originating from the New Jersey Regional Operations and Intelligence Center (ROIC) of the New Jersey State Police, warning of credible threats of organized violence against police, EMTs and paramedics in Jersey City.

This notification marked the climax of a summer consumed by rising community tensions, and was the first time that EMS had experienced a loss of their “neutral third-party” status in a city that sees its share of street violence.

EMS and hospital leadership were suddenly thrust into the difficult situation of protecting EMS personnel while still providing the timely, quality prehospital care that the nearly 300,000 residents of Jersey City had come to expect in their community.

Jersey City EMS in body armor

Jersey City EMS opted for a uniform-style carrier that appears identical to the uniform worn underneath. This makes it very difficult for the public to tell the individual is wearing a ballistic vest from a distance.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

JCMC EMS has been no stranger to dangerous situations involving its staff. For decades, JCMC EMS personnel have worked in an urban environment, but were generally viewed by all parties as the neutral medical team, immune from community strife.

Throughout these years, the thought of additional protection for our EMS personnel was unheard of, with the organization and its members surviving unscathed through several bouts of civil unrest. However, in recent years, violence against EMS providers and potentially life-endangering situations were on the rise. It became increasingly evident EMS couldn’t continue to rely on this overarching community endearment to ensure the safety of its providers.

In 2009, five Jersey City police officers were shot while making a tactical entry into an apartment. Two officers were critically injured as they and others attempted to subdue the suspect. Upon hearing the commotion and that officers were critically injured, JCMC EMS personnel standing by at the scene entered the building alongside the backup officers. While those backup officers neutralized the suspect, JCMC EMS personnel entered the hot zone and rapidly evacuated the two critically wounded officers.

One officer later died at the hospital, while the other, suffering from a gunshot wound to the neck, survived due to his rapid extrication and immediate surgical intervention. Although credited with saving the lives of the police officers who survived, their actions raised new concerns surrounding the safety of EMS providers.

With a staff of over 300, the prospect of outfitting the department with body armor was daunting from both a financial and logistical perspective. With an upfront cost of over a quarter million dollars, a full outfit was deemed unfeasible. Over the next few years, our department analyzed and evaluated multiple options to increase provider safety, including the possibility of creating tactical EMS teams and/or all-hazards units that could handle these high-risk situations.

With the release of the first Hartford Consensus and the FEMA guidelines for active shooter events, JCMC EMS realized the need to further evaluate options, and the department prepared to start ramping up its body armor program throughout 2014-2016.

EMS TAKES ACTION

On the day the notification from the ROIC was received, everything changed. The multiyear plan in place wouldn’t offer adequate protection for the staff in a timely fashion. No longer could multiple threats be readily identified and evaluated for legitimacy. Our department needed to act, and we needed to act swiftly.

A sense of concern began permeating our department at all levels. Some individuals were understandably fearful of responding to emergencies. Yet, the organization had made a commitment to the city to provide its services-it couldn’t allow a small, potentially violent group of individuals to endanger the safety of providers and prevent them from ensuring proper prehospital care to the greater, law-abiding residents of Jersey City.

Within hours of the notification, police departments and officers from across New Jersey were offering donations of used body armor for the EMS staff to use. Despite liability concerns, EMS personnel were permitted to use the equipment “at their own risk” while long-term options were being considered internally. Cost remained an issue, but understanding the urgency and gravity of the situation, hospital leadership approved an emergency allocation of nearly $100,000 to purchase a cache of 100 pieces of various sized body armor for on-duty use.

The decision was made that each EMS employee would be issued a carrier, and the armor itself would be signed in and out at each shift. Unfortunately, vendors that had previously expressed interest in providing body armor informed us they couldn’t meet the requested volume in a time frame acceptable to the needs of the department.

Thankfully, the department’s uniform vendor, Turn Out Uniforms, stepped in to help and was able to secure the body armor vendor GH Armor to meet the demand and provide overnight delivery.

In addition to the armor, we needed to carefully decide what type of carrier would be provided. Initial discussion leaned toward traditional, external tactical carriers. However, with the ongoing threats against EMS and enforcement, EMS leadership believed the tactical carrier would make EMS appear too militaristic if worn on a routine basis.

There was also a concern that EMS personnel could be more easily mistaken for law enforcement while wearing tactical carriers and would actually be placed in greater danger. Ultimately, we opted for a uniform-style carrier that appears identical to the uniform worn underneath. This made it very difficult for the public to tell the individual was wearing a ballistic vest from a distance.

Although one potential danger was addressed, the department understood that vests were not enough to ensure the safety of the staff during the heightened tensions. Operational changes were needed as well. As a department that utilized street corner deployment, ambulances awaiting dispatch were in potential danger while awaiting calls.

As a result of the threats, our ambulances were diverted away from posting in unsecure locations in the areas of highest tension, and redeployed to either nearby secure areas and facilities or to the periphery of these neighborhoods.

Discussions with the local police department added a temporary mandatory law enforcement response within all areas of heightened tension. Additional supervisory staff was also added 24/7 to respond to all emergencies in this area, providing additional situational awareness for providers.

Jersey City EMS in body armor

A temporary mandatory law enforcement response was issued for emergency medical calls within all areas of heightened tension.

RETURN TO NORMALCY

Thankfully, no EMS providers were targeted or injured during this time. As the summer of 2014 came to a close, and the immediate crisis began to pass, the department recognized the need to conduct a thorough self-assessment. The events of the summer had forever changed the department and how
it operated.

Anxiety remained high among the staff. Citizen complaints began to increase, as provider insecurity understandably took a toll on customer service. Although those involved in the initial traumatic response were offered immediate counseling, the department realized the emotional impact of the summer had affected everyone in the department. Additional staff members were therefore offered counseling services, and the department began trying to find a way to return to normalcy.

Over time, we were able to scale back some of the initial response protocol changes along the same time frame as partner law enforcement agencies scaled back their responses.

Our department continues to expand its body armor program today, although regular use of the equipment by staff has decreased. JCMC EMS expanded its already close relationship with local law enforcement.

EMS is now more regularly included in active shooter drills and other law enforcement exercises and training programs. Discussions were held with local law enforcement regarding the potential opening of a substation in our EMS headquarters, which has since been regularly used during adverse weather conditions. Additionally, law enforcement leadership invited EMS leadership to take a larger role in law enforcement intelligence.

UPDATE

In November 2015, another critical incident involving JCMC EMS occurred. A paramedic unit transporting a patient to a local hospital was struck by a vehicle that, unbeknown to EMS, was suspected to have been involved in a shooting elsewhere in the city.

Rather than flee the scene, the driver of that vehicle approached the ambulance armed with a firearm. Upon exiting the vehicle to assess for injuries, the paramedic found the driver of the other vehicle attempting to draw a gun on the occupied ambulance.

Fortunately, this paramedic had prior law enforcement training and, recognizing the potentially immediate threat, was able to disarm the assailant, who fled the scene on foot.

As a result of this incident, the department engaged Defensive Tactics 4 Escaping Mitigating Surviving (DT4EMS.com) to offer out-of-hospital specific training to all staff over the coming months.

EMS Today 2016 interview with author Robert Luckritz, JD, NREMT-P

CONCLUSION

The summer of 2014 will long be remembered as a stressful time for JCMC EMS. However, the lessons learned from it will forever shape the department, its leadership and its staff.

Although times have changed, it remains critical for all EMS agencies to do a self-assessment, and to prepare themselves for the changing public environment. Unfortunately, situations like these are likely to happen again, and it’s essential that EMS agencies and the EMS industry as a whole be prepared as how we are going to respond.

Violence against EMS providers continues to be on the rise around the world. Every experience JCMC EMS has encountered has brought about new questions and challenged existing protocols, necessitating a careful re-evaluation of response strategies.

While no one particular safety strategy can be equally effective in every agency, it’s critical that as an industry, we continue to escalate the conversation. Whether rural or urban, volunteer or paid, EMS agencies are now facing new challenges. Working together and sharing our experiences without judgment will only help us all protect ourselves and our colleagues as we move forward into a new era.

REFERENCES

1. Disgust at cop-killer’s memorial bigger than shrine to officer he shot – as his widow says she wishes he’d killed more police. (July 14, 2014.) Daily Mail. Retrieved Jan. 20, 2016, from www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2692234/Disgusting-Friends-relatives-New-Jersey-cop-killer-create-shrine-candles-liquor-bottles-commemorate-cold-blooded-killer.html.

2. Dolan J. (July 15, 2014.) Internal memos warn Jersey City officers to be on high alert due to retaliation. ABC 7 NY. Retrieved Jan. 20, 2016, from www.abc7ny.com/news/internal-memos-warn-officers-to-be-on-high-alert/185107.

3. Messing P. (July 15, 2014.) Bloods threaten to kill more cops. New York Daily Post. Retrieved Jan. 20, 2016, from www.nypost.com/2014/07/15/bloods-threaten-to-kill-a-cop-in-revenge-for-cop-killer-shot-dead.