EMS crew safety comes into focus following Perryman crowd incident

An Aberdeen Fire Department EMS crew locked itself in its ambulance Tuesday night when it arrived on the scene of an emergency call in Perryman and encountered a large fight, prompting questions the about the safety of first responders in what two knowledgeable public safety officials concede is a changing county.

The ambulance was responding for a call of a sick woman in the 400 block of Daugherty Lane around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, according to Richard Gardiner of the Harford County Volunteer Fire & EMS Association and Edward Hopkins, spokesman for the Harford County Sheriff’s Office. Both have been involved in public safety issues for more two decades or more.

The woman, Hopkins said later, was suffering from withdrawal from some type of medication.
When they arrived, members of the EMS crew reported people were fighting in the road and they “locked themselves in the unit for their own safety,” Gardiner said.

After taking shelter in the ambulance, the EMS crew called 911 to report the situation, making note that items, possibly rocks, were being thrown at the ambulance.

More than 30 people were fighting outside the medic unit, according to Gardiner, and the unit was “basically surrounded with people fighting and throwing things at each other and was not safe to leave.”

So many people were in the area, he wrote in an e-mail message, that the ambulance couldn’t get out safely through the crowd without running the risk of hitting someone.

“So they stayed out, called the police and locked themselves in the unit,” Gardiner wrote.

Sheriff’s deputies responded and, when they arrived saw no one near the ambulance, Hopkins said.

The patient for whom the ambulance had been dispatched was uncooperative and would not speak to police.

Deputies spoke to EMS personnel, who then reported nothing had been thrown at the ambulance and that they locked themselves into the vehicle out of fear of the crowd and fight.

It is unclear whether things were thrown and didn’t hit the ambulance, or if the ambulance was targeted by the things being thrown, Hopkins said.

Deputies checked the surrounding area and could not find anyone who acknowledged being  involved in the incident, he said.

No report was written because there was neither damage nor injuries, Hopkins said.

The woman was taken to a local hospital, Gardiner said.

Unusual for Harford

The incident Tuesday is unusual in Harford County but not entirely unexpected, both Hopkins and Gardiner said.

“It does happen, but it doesn’t happen that frequently,” Hopkins said.

In addition to being chief spokesman for Harford's main law enforcement agency, Hopkins is a former sheriff’s deputy who is also chief of the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company and has extensive fire, EMS and police experience. He was speaking primarily from a law enforcement angle.

Hopkins and Gardiner both said, however, that Harford County has more incorrigible elements than it once did, and the potential for risks to the safety of first responders is a sign of that shift.

The county has more people and more crime, Hopkins said. While there is more violent crime in the Route 40 corridor where Tuesday’s incident occurred, Hopkins continued, in general the EMS side is seeing an increase in domestic incidents, an increase in overdoses and, “sadly,” an increase in suicides countywide.

“This is not our parents’ Harford County, for that matter it isn't the Harford County we grew up in. I don't have exact numbers but, more often than not, you will hear crews being told to stage away until law enforcement can secure the area,” Gardiner wrote in an e-mail.

Certain protocols are followed for dispatching police, fire and emergency medical personnel to different situations, depending on the information the 911 dispatcher has.

“If an EMS call is known to be a dangerous/unsafe scene prior to dispatch, then law enforcement is also dispatched along with fire/EMS,” Gardiner wrote. “The fire/EMS units and personnel are advised to stage away from the scene until the scene is secured by law enforcement.”

Cross-monitoring of calls

Many times, Hopkins explained, deputies on patrol are cross-monitoring the fire and EMS radio channels and a deputy will often provide assistance to the extent possible, out of professional courtesy.

While crime has increased in Harford and fire and emergency medical responders are going into more and more potentially dangerous situations, police don’t need to be sent on every fire and medical call that is dispatched, Gardiner wrote.

“If you are asking should law enforcement respond on every fire/EMS incident in a certain area or areas, I don't believe we have reached that point yet,” Gardiner wrote.

It’s unclear how the ambulance was dispatched in Tuesday’s incident. The ambulance could have been sent to respond assuming it was a basic medical response call, with no indication the crew would encounter a hostile environment.

An EMS crew or fire crew never knows how an incident could escalate, Gardiner noted.

“The most benign call can turn bad at any time,” he wrote, explaining that fire and EMS personnel must maintain what they call “situational awareness.”

“They do this at all times and on every call,” he added.

Gardiner said numerous classes and seminars are offered by a variety of agencies on how to handle unexpected and dangerous situations that emergency responders could encounter.

Many of Harford’s emergency providers have attended these classes and learned how to understand and react to certain situations and be prepared for the others they can’t anticipate.

Armed EMS crews?

A post about Tuesday’s incident on the popular Harford Fire Blog Facebook page generated a number of comments, including one that said medic crews “should be armed.”

EMS crews carrying weapons, however, isn’t a good idea, Hopkins said, because the EMS crew members in general, unlike law enforcement officers, don’t have the requisite training, experience and supervision.

“An [police] officer knows, is cognizant of his surroundings and what to be on the lookout for,” Hopkins said.

A police officer’s main focus is public safety, whereas for an emergency medical responder, it’s to treat a victim, he explained.

“When they work in the field of public safety, EMS attention is distracted because their attention is on the patient,” Hopkins continued. “They may not be able to be totally aware of what’s going on around them in a hostile environment. Were they carrying a weapon, they could be distracted to the point that someone could steal it and then use it against them.

Being armed also brings into play other issues such as the possibility EMS personnel might shoot an assailant then end up having to treat that person.

Gardiner said the ambulance crew acted appropriately in Tuesday’s situation.

“Yes, this crew most certainly did the right thing for the situation presented to them,” he wrote. “Their personal safety comes first. They did what they were trained to do and also what instinct told them to do.”

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