Until recently, if an active shooter had been in the food court of the mall, police would have had to secure the entire building before victims anywhere inside could get the medical care they needed.
But as police and fire agencies learn from incidents around the country, they are changing their tactics to ensure they can get help to victims in a faster, better way.
To do so, Bellingham’s fire and police agencies have agreed to two major changes.
▪ A select group of paramedics has been trained to wear protective gear and taught how to enter potentially dangerous situations along with the SWAT team.
We are committed as a fire service to risk a lot to save a lot.
Ryan Provencher, training division chief, Bellingham Fire Department
▪ The agencies have trained together to provide police protection so any paramedic or firefighter can safely do their job close to a violent scene as needed.
“We are committed as a fire service to risk a lot to save a lot,” Fire Training Division Chief Ryan Provencher told City Council members in a March 21 presentation on the changes. “If we have our law enforcement officers escorting us, there will be no delay, no scene security, but we have to be on the same page.”
April 20 is the 17th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting, which drove much of the change in the way police around the country respond to shootings and violent incidents.
“Since Columbine, that was really the instigator of change in tactics,” Bellingham Police Training Sgt. Chad Cristelli told the council. “It was a game change in our response.”
Now, instead of surrounding the scene with a perimeter as they used to, police go in immediately and secure that area.
Police updated their tactics but realized there was still a “clunkiness” in getting firefighters and medics inside of a scene, Cristelli said.
“How do we shorten that gap of time where it switches from a police effort to a fire mission?” he asked.
Until recently, firefighters and medics staged in a safe area away from dangerous incidents, waiting until police ensured the area was safe. After receiving the all-clear, medics would start helping anyone who needed aid.
But securing a scene could take anywhere from minutes to hours, depending on the situation, and every minute counts when someone is wounded, Provencher said.
Training the medics
“One of the lessons we learned from Columbine and incidents since then is people in these events die in the hallways of these structures waiting for medical help to get to them,” Scott Farlow, EMS supervisor, told the council March 21.
To change that, the fire and police departments created a Tactical Emergency Medical Services team of six experienced medics, referred to as TEMS.
“We don’t have firearms or ballistic equipment,” Farlow told the council. “Our role is to take care of the injured. If we become injured, we’re not moving the process forward.”
After passing physical tests and interviews, the medics received three weeks of tactical training and learned how to operate in a SWAT situation, said Lt. Don Almer, who served on Bellingham’s SWAT team for about 15 years.
In addition to the initial training, those medics will continue to train on a monthly basis with members of the SWAT team, Almer said.
For years the police department weighed various ways to get medic support involved in SWAT, in the event an officer or someone else was injured, Almer said. The department considered sending officers through medical training at one point, but it turned out to be too time and cost prohibitive.
At the same time, getting medics into a potentially dangerous scene can be tricky, Almer said.
It doesn’t go unnoticed by the folks at the police department and the fire department that the public expects us to handle situations that we hope never happen.
Lt. Don Almer, Bellingham Police Department
“The medical community obviously is a bit averse to going into a ‘hot’ zone, because we have body armor, they don’t. We have a way to defend ourselves and other people, and they don’t,” Almer said.
“And historically, it’s never been part of our training,” added Rob Kintzele, assistant chief of operations for Bellingham Fire Department.
For the most part, SWAT intends to keep even the new highly trained medics, who are learning how to think like police, inside of areas called “warm” zones, Almer said. Those zones are areas that don’t have an immediate threat but could be very close to one that does.
However, because those medics will have full body armor and can draw from additional experience, they may be brought into “hot” zones with active threats.
“It doesn’t go unnoticed by the folks at the police department and the fire department that the public expects us to handle situations that we hope never happen,” Almer said. “Nobody wants to be saying we could have put this stuff in place, we could have done this, but we didn’t.”
Helping the community
Steve Larsen, one of the paramedics accepted into the TEMS program, said he wanted to join the team because he saw a need in the community.
“Just the reoccurrence of the active shooter, the violence that this country has been encountering, I just felt that, having kids of my own, felt that it had a value to me, to my needs, and the community needs,” Larsen said.
In general, serving as a first responder involves risk analysis, Larsen said. The new training he has received adds to that.
“We risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little,” he said. “They’ve provided us with firearms training, and just the same amount of protection SWAT members have, the vests and the gear. ... It enables us to go into more places than we would be able to on a fire scene or medic scene.”
Larsen said the training has been humbling, as he better understands the risky situations cops deal with on a regular basis.
Though he hopes the community will never have to respond to something like a mass shooting, Larsen said the training was helping to bridge the gap in communication between the departments, which should improve responses.
Agencies working better together
In addition to the specialized team of medics that can accompany SWAT, all fire and police agencies in Whatcom County are working to change the way they respond to violent incidents in general, Provencher said.
All Bellingham firefighters and police who might respond to anything from a stabbing to a mass shooting participated in joint training to learn about the new concept of getting medics or firefighters into “warm” zones sooner. Officers practiced providing cover to fire personnel, so they can do their job without worrying about their own safety.
“In our daily lives, we recognize that when we need help, we want them to be here in a hurry,” Kintzele said, referring to police. “When they need help, they want us to be there in a hurry. So this is just a further step in getting us together in that.”
The agencies will continue to integrate the new policies into their daily activities and keep up on training.
“We’re really seeing a ripple effect in everything that we do,” Provencher said. “I’m sensing a more collaborative environment than I have seen in my career.”
To get the TEMS medics trained and outfitted in gear, the police and fire departments moved money within their existing budgets, trimming elsewhere, to ensure the program could get on the ground.
“It is a difficult program to initiate. It’s costly,” Bellingham Police Chief Cliff Cook told City Council. “Both departments took funding from elsewhere in the agency to make sure this occurred, and we want to ask for continued support.”