Bethel Twp. is the only fire department in Ohio currently allowing its personnel to carry concealed guns for personal defense, the president of the state fire chiefs’ association believes.
Bethel’s chief said a crisis last week is one reason why.
Five unarmed emergency personnel — on what they thought was a routine medical run in Georgia — were taken hostage by a gunman.
The man was shot dead by SWAT officers, who stormed his house after the 2 ½-hour standoff Wednesday. The firefighters suffered minor injuries.
“Here’s a perfect example of why we took on this stance — to give us the ability to have an exit strategy,” Bethel Twp. Fire and EMS Department Chief Jacob King said.
King doesn’t have specific knowledge of the circumstances there, and he couldn’t say for sure if a gun in the hands of the rescuers would have helped them escape. But he felt the situation would likely have played out differently.
About a year ago, select Bethel Twp. personnel were permitted to carry concealed weapons.
The move was, in part, a response to increasing hostilities toward the men and women who respond to fight fires and treat victims of emergencies, he said.
A second high-profile case involved an ambush of New York state firefighters, which made national news on Dec. 24 last year.
A gunman allegedly set his home ablaze, called 9-1-1 to report it, and fired upon responding personnel, leaving two firefighters dead and two wounded.
“When you look at the people that are trying to do harm, they want the biggest bang for their buck, and, as this gentleman did (Wednesday) in Georgia. He got national media attention by taking hostage firemen,” he said. “I mean he called 9-1-1, reported … that he was having a heart attack. They sent five personnel there and, knowing that it was a heart attack call, law enforcement wouldn’t have come.”
Potential ambushes, not enough revenue to afford a 24-hour law enforcement contract with the sheriff’s office, and wait times for a deputy to respond from other parts of the county led King’s department to ask trustees for approval for select personnel to carry concealed weapons.
The trustees unanimously agreed.
“The township had to reduce our sheriff’s deputies from two to one based on the police fund, so … we knew that our response times for law enforcement from the sheriff’s office was going to be significantly delayed responding to calls in our jurisdiction,” King said.
King likened personnel carrying concealed weapons to other tools the department carries but will likely never use.
“For an example, we carry radiation detectors on our rescue truck,” he said.
Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Association President Bruce Moritz said he’d heard of legislation brought to the statehouse last year would have allowed medics attached specifically to special operations teams such as SWAT to carry.
The association, however, opposed that legislation because they felt it should be up to the local fire departments and governments to decide, Moritz said. It’s still in the Ohio House of Representatives’ Local Government committee.
As for fire or EMS personnel carrying concealed weapons, the association would want guidance from the state before it released an opinion, but the decision should ultimately be left up the local government, he said.
“The fire service has always been a neutral service. Starting to carry weapons now opens us up to being targets,” Moritz said. “ …With what happened in New York and what happened (Wednesday), that kind of throws that right out the window.”
Moritz’s personal feeling as chief of the Allen-Clay Joint Fire Department in Genoa, Ohio, is mixed about letting anyone and everyone carry weapons.
“If everybody starts carrying, who ends up being the bad guy and how do we identify them?”
His staff doesn’t carry, and he has no intention of allowing it because they always have police protection when they need it.
Toby Hoover, executive director of The Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, doubted firearms would be an effective defense for firefighters.
“It’s a big fallacy that people think that because they’ve gone through the CCW course that they’re just going to be able to protect everybody,” she said. “If you look at trained law enforcement that are carrying weapons every single day, and they’re dealing with crime every single day, the majority of the time when they fire their service weapon, they don’t hit their target.”
She understood Bethel Twp.’s reasoning of wanting an exit strategy and not having to wait for the sheriff’s office sometimes to deem a scene safe, but didn’t think they would have an advantage in a hostile situation.
“At what point does that person pull a gun on this armed emergency worker and not have an advantage? Unless they’re going to walk around with it in their hand all the time, they’re not going to have time to do all these wonderful things that they think they can do,” she said.
King countered, “The thought process that we use is this not a stand our ground and defend it like a law enforcement agent. Our mentality that we put forth with this program is it’s an avenue for us to escape that environment.”
Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly said his agency would not change procedures because the Bethel Twp. department is carrying their own weapons.
“Our policy is now that the uniform patrol deputies will go in and declare it safe, and we’ll call EMS or fire personnel into the scene after we’ve secured it,” Kelly said.
The fire department’s policy dictates that weapons are to only be carried concealed to minimize a mistaken identity of the emergency workers with law enforcement officers and oft-related aggressions toward them, King said.
It’s had significant buy-in of its part-time and volunteer staff too, King said. Nearly 30 percent of its personnel are allowed to carry, and more have an interest.
Employees who were not in favor at the beginning have become more comfortable with the idea, he said. Still, policy includes a provision that allows an employee to be moved to a crew if they were uncomfortable with an individual who was carrying.
Not every employee with a permit is allowed to carry on duty.
Bethel requires trustee approval for each individual to carry, and copies of the individual’s CCW license and weapon serial number are kept on file, King said.
As for liability to the township, King said that any of their actions could wind up in court at any time, and this was no different.
The individual is responsible as any concealed carry permit holder would be and required to follow the same rules as a civilian CCW holder.
Springfield Fire Rescue Division, Clark County’s most-staffed department, doesn’t have a need to carry guns at this time, Chief Nick Heimlich said.
He echoed the fire chiefs’ association’s opinion that the need should be based on local agencies and government need.
Heimlich said his department reviewed the idea and said it’s something each division should decide on its own.
“When the staff of the fire division … talk about this, they understand that there are certain risk situations that they’re confronted with or potentially confronted with, and we do everything in our power to avoid over-committing to a situation where the only natural resolution seems to be the use of lethal force, whether that’s for protection or otherwise,” he said.
Heimlich said that the gun debate needs to be worked out at a societal level. “I don’t think arming firefighters is necessarily the solution,” he said.
Still, the move was one that was right for Bethel’s department and for the township, King said.
“We look at this and say, OK, this gives our responding personnel or at least our officers the ability to have that level of protection … ”
“Specifically, we really engage when the person is unconscious or possibly not breathing,” he said. “That allows us to not have to wait because we have a mechanism that once we get in, we have a tool that’ll help us escape that environment if it’s a hostile one.”