CIVIL UNREST IN DURHAM: LESSONS LEARNED
Ronald O’Keefe, Durham Assistant Fire Chief
No one is ever prepared to deal with an angry crowd. You never truly know how they will react. But occasionally, as emergency responders, we end up responding to fights, domestic violence and an occasional group brawl. In Durham, we had given some thought to the problem of civil unrest. We operate in a college community where protests often occur over some policy decision or another.
We even had a draft operating guideline developed in our effort to meet the requirements of NFPA 1500. It was only a few years ago that the riots in Los Angeles proved that the fire service needed some guidelines in this area. Never did we think that we would be placing our draft guideline into operation so quickly.
The first civil disturbance caught everyone off guard. Four hundred to 500 students, some looking for a party, some hanging out at some local apartments, converged and took control of a major town intersection. The police responded in force and utilized spot lights to light up the area. This proved to be a mistake. The crowd became angry and many started to throw rocks and bottles at the police. Pepper spray was placed into action to disperse the crowd. Our involvement was to provide EMS care to those sprayed with the pepper spray. Thankfully, no emergency responders were injured.
There were numerous meetings the following week between Town and University of New Hampshire officials. The feeling from those involved in the meetings was that it was a one-time occurrence of students blowing off some steam. No one thought it would happen again. Even so, the police had a few extra officers working the following Friday to keep things in order.
If the first civil disturbance caught us by surprise, the second one stunned us all. About 1 a.m. on Saturday morning, fire department pagers alerted off-duty personnel of a first alarm recall for a serious riot in the downtown area. As I was responding to the scene in our command car, my mind raced through the draft policy that was developed three years ago. My primary concern was the involvement of fire department personnel and their safety. As I approached the scene, I saw a crowd, later estimated at 500-600, milling around the same intersection as the previous week. Our personnel had responded to a medical aid at a sorority two buildings down from the disturbance. I checked in with the duty captain to see what the medical call was and to receive a briefing from him on our involvement. The patient was being loaded into the ambulance. There was approximately 50 people milling around us as we handled the call.
Just as the patient was loaded into the ambulance and I thought we were going to get out of the incident without any complications, a scuffle broke out around the ambulance. Caught in the middle, fire department personnel attempted to calm things down. It started to get a little intense when fire and ambulance personnel were ordered out of the area. Again, no injuries to emergency responders. Fire apparatus reported to a designated staging area about two blocks from the disturbance, in a dead-end parking lot.
I reported to the police command area where I saw an impressive site. Over a dozen mutual aid police agencies and their officers standing at the ready in two lines, viewing the disturbance from a higher vantage point. Somewhere in riot gear, others were handling police dogs. All of them were ready to go into action should the need arise.
I checked in with the police captain in charge and offered my services. The command staff included senior officials from the Town and the University of New Hampshire Police Departments, our Town Administrator, the UNH President, Town Council members, and a few other assorted officials. We all commented on the crowd and how we could not believe that this was happening again in Durham. There was an estimated 600 students this time. They had taken control of the same intersection. Some were throwing bottles and some minor scuffles broke out. For the most part, the crowd was somewhat under control.
The police command officer informed me that the decision was to wait the crowd out. Hopefully they would disperse. I realized that the command staff were located between the angry crowd and the police force. They were less than 100 feet from the disturbance. I decided that this was not a good position to be in should the crowd become more angry. I informed the police command officer that I would be at the staging area with our personnel. He approved this decision. We handled only one other medical call during the disturbance, a student suffering from the effects of pepper spray. Eventually, the disturbance broke up after about two to three hours. Again, no emergency responders were injured.
Our basic operation was simple. Eventually, when adequate staffing was available, we formed a task force of a four-person engine company, two-person medical response company, and a chief officer. Our task was to handle any calls in the disturbance area and the downtown areas. Back at the station, we staffed our remaining two engines, our ladder, and heavy rescue with off-duty personnel. Their task was to back us up if needed and to handle all other calls within the community. Fortunately, no other responses occurred during the disturbance.
We learned many valuable lessons that night which I will share with you:
1. Constantly monitor the condition of the incident and your action plan. If something is not working, change it. We originally responded with our heavy rescue and our quick response medical unit. It was determined that the rescue was too hard to maneuver so it was replaced with a fully-enclosed engine.
2. Meet with the police before making any significant decisions. This is their show. They have a good feel on how the crowd will react. It was decided that all responses in the disturbance area would be a Code 1 response. The police saw how the crowd reacted the first time to spot lights. They felt the use of emergency warning signals might incite the crowd.
3. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. Everybody must know what the plan is. Make sure everyone is on the same plan, especially when the use of force by law enforcement is being considered.
4. Do not enter the disturbance area without a police escort. The medical call at the sorority turned hostile very fast, and we were left without protection. Remember, safety of our personnel is paramount.
5. Solicit input from all of your personnel. Just because you have the bugles does not mean you have all of the answers. During times like this, it is better to put your heads together.
6. Review the area the police want you to stage at. Find one in a safe area with a view of the incident. Leave yourself a way out. Do not use dead ends. Our location was a dead-ended parking lot. We realized that the police had the crowd blocked off in three directions, leaving them only one way out. You guessed it, directly towards our staging area. Leave yourself with some options.
7. Conduct a post-incident analysis (PIA). Do this soon after the incident. We conducted ours at about 4 a.m. that morning. The ideas were fresh in our minds. Post the summary of your PIA so others can review it and make comments.
The bottom line is be prepared. We did not think anything like this would happen in Durham, but it did. Instruct your people to be firm yet polite and nonconfrontational when dealing with people in this type of situation. Have an operating guideline. You do not want to be developing one as you respond to the incident. Communicate with all agencies operating at the incident. Be safe. It makes no sense for a fire or a medical person to become injured during a civil disturbance. Use good judgment and common sense.