Friday, September 25, 2009

The wait

At the time, we were running three person engine companies in a lot of our houses, the result of expansion without increases in staffing and an economic downturn. I didn't miss the fourth person then as much as I would now.

We were working out of old station 15, a compact house built in the 50's. Not a bad place to work if everyone was getting along, pure hell if there was a lot of fussing between crew members. A wood frame stucco structure with an apparatus floor built for a round-fendered General, not a modern crew cab Seagrave, old fifteens had neither charm or spaciousness.

The kitchen, day room and office were all kind of one room, with a partition separating the kitchen from the day room / office. Getting serious work done at the desk was tough if someone was cooking or watching TV. Watching TV was tough if the cook was noisy or someone was on the company phone. It was just cramped.

The peace of the evening was broken first by the printer, then the tones then the voice telling us that our services were needed. A stabbing had occurred, not too far from the station. Dispatch didn't have a lot of information for us, just that someone was being stabbed and that the Sheriff was en-route.

Our Fire District has no written policy regarding waiting for the Sheriff to secure the scene on violence related calls. Dispatch provides us with as much information as possible, then the company officer makes the decision whether we respond directly to the call, or we stage outside the area until the scene is secured. Some company officers are resolute in staging, others are more aggressive and respond in before the cops arrive more often than not. I take it on a case by case basis, leaning toward safety. I do not have the tools or training to deal with violent people, I must either use my fists, or improvise a weapon to protect myself with. Fortunately, I have been able to diffuse most of the situations that I have been in.

On this call, two pieces of information stand out. The first is the word "stabbing," the second is the term "being stabbed". As a result, I decide to have Fredo stop a few blocks away and wait for the Sheriff.

We got on the rig and headed toward the call. I had Fredo stop about two blocks short and around the corner from the reported location.To me, it seemed like a good spot because not only was it around the corner from the call, but it was down under an abandoned railroad bridge and was a discreet location.

We told dispatch that we were on scene, staged and gave our location. Dispatch, in turn would relay this information to the ambulance company and to the sheriff. Dispatch acknowledged that we were staging and advised us that S.O. would be delayed, as they were "code 9" (no units available).

We shut off our lights and prepared to wait a few minutes until S.O. could free a unit up and respond to our call. Imagine our surprise when a few minutes later, a man appears out of the dark and bangs on my side window. It startled me, I hadn't see him coming. He had cut across a parking lot and a vacant  field and then slid down the embankment from the old railroad  tracks, popping out on the street behind us.

"She's over there" he yelled, panting from exertion, "She's stabbed really bad!" He pointed in the direction where the incident had been originally reported. I rolled down the window and asked him if the assailant was still there. He couldn't tell me, he didn't know.

I asked dispatch for a revised ETA from the Sheriff. While this is going on, the witness was still shouting at us that the victim is "over there". When dispatch finally got back to me,  she advised us that the S.O. was en-route from the sub-station, a 10 minute drive away.

The knot of  tension grew in my stomach. I felt a need to explain to the witness why we were staging instead of going directly to the scene. I tried to explain the situation to this man through the rolled down window. Understandably, he is insistent that the victim is over there and that is where we should be. My explanation has fallen on deaf ears. This exchange occurred several times, each with the same result. But, each time, he couldn't tell me if the assailant was still there, or whether he had left.

Fredo asks me if I think we should head over there. This annoys me a little, as I know it is his way of saying that he thinks we should respond in. I encourage input from my crew, additional ideas and perspectives can help me with the decision making process. However, I feel the protection of my crew is vital in this situation and I really don't want the pressure of another person wanting to head over to the scene. The knot in my stomach grows and the sweep hand on my watch slows.

After an eternity, the sound of a patrol car siren was heard approaching the area. A minute later, we are cleared to roll in. The print-out of the call later revealed that we were staged for about six minutes. It seemed like an hour to me.

I wish I could tell you that this tale had a happy ending, that we successfully treated the young female victim and that she made a complete recovery. Sadly, that is not what occured.

When we arrived on the scene, we found a woman in her early 20s, laying in the gutter with her head nearly severed from her body. A stream of blood flowed from her lifeless body and down the gutter. The paramedic on the ambulance quickly ensured that the protocols for determining death were met and we stepped away from our victim.

The assailant, the victim's live-in boyfriend, had fled prior to the arrival of the Sheriff and was arrested nearby a few days later.

Did our staging provide the murderer a few more minutes to complete his task? Would our responding directly to the scene changed the outcome of the call? I will never know for sure the answers to those questions.

I still think that staging outside the area was the right thing to do, difficult as that descision was. Now, however, I usually stage a little farther away. The call still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but there is not much I can do about that.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Damn if you do and damn if you don't. I responded to a stabbing scene as a detective and I was told EMS was working on the victim before PD arrived. When PD arrived, they asked where was the suspect and the witness pointed to a female 10 feet away STILL HOLDING THE KNIFE! She was taken into custody but that could have had a different ending.

    Don't yall have about 500 gallons of water to use as a weapon? lol

  2. Cap -- I hurt for you... .I firmly believe yours was the right call. The first responsibility we are taught is scene safety, and an officer's first responsibility is protecting the crew from avoidable hazards. Based on the information you had, you could do nothing else. FireFighter Nation and other outlets covered a story this week about a Plea Bargain (25 years for 2 murders) in a 5 year old incident in which a Kentucky man killed his wife and a Lexington FF/Medic.
    The Medic rolled into a live fire incident - barricaded subject with a long gun, shots fired and victim down-- before the cops got there and waaay before the scene was safe.
    1 dead spouse, 1 dead Fire Lt., 2 wounded responders. I rode an Engine for the funeral. That Department's SOG's at that time gave FF's the option. Not any more. Never again.
    A situation like yours -- or the murdered Medic's -- is wrenching.
    In this imperfect world I hope you and your crew can find comfort that none of you will be guests of honor at a Firefighter Funeral.

  3. The mantle of command is a heavy one to bear. You did what you felt was right for your crews safety. No one can question that.

    Great post as usual Schmoe.

  4. I empathize, Cap.

    Recently ran a call of what turned out to be a self-inflicted gunshot. Information on the initial call was sketchy, caller had hung up, it was not clear up front who was shooting at who.

    I was first due to the rural address and running alone, staged well around the corner from the access to the private road, where the house was the last address at the end of that road.

    Little did I know about their side-access driveway that emptied out a couple hundred feet behind where I staged. Imagine the unpleasant surprise when someone drove violently up behind me in a spray of gravel and ran up to the squad.

    Soon several family members were there and in their freak-out groove no one could give me a straight story or tell me where the weapon was. Sheriff's Office was still 10-15 out. I finally caved to the pressure of them all screaming at me to go help, and it turned out OK. Well, OK is relative, as we all know.

    I wrote a little about this one, actually, but didn't address your angle when writing:

    Since then, I stage a LOT farther away. I'll know when the brothers in blue are close and can then close in as appropriate.

    Love your blog, Cap. Thanks.

  5. Around here, most departments remove the discretion from the company officer. Any reported shooting, stabbing, or assault where the status of the assailant is unclear is an absolute no-go.

    Yes, normally you don't want to give officers LESS discretionary ability, but in this case I believe in it for two reasons- safety being the obvious one, but also the officer and crew's own psychological well-being. What I mean by that is I think a situation like yours is much easier to deal with and process after the fact if you could have said "Well, it wasn't my decision not to go in and try for the save. SOP kept me out. Nothin' I could do."

    Few years back a local FD EMS crew actually witnessed the shooting they responded to. They called it in and moved into the crowd.

    They ended up with a gun to their heads and a threat to their lives if they saved the patient.

    I prefer to stage every time, and have an SOP to enforce it. Let the guys and gals with the guns figure it out.