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Beyond backdrafts: Keeping firefighters safe from violence

Erik Lunsford | Post-Dispatch (pool)

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 23, 2008-  MAPLEWOOD -- The red pickup was on fire in a driveway on Zephyr Place. A small fire. Simply routine. Maybe 20 minutes tops for the crew to put it out, reload the hose and write a brief report. After all, veterans know, the biggest threat to firefighters on a vehicle fire like this is that the pickup's tires could explode from the intense heat.

No one expected an ambush.

Ryan Hummert, 22, was one of four firefighters on the truck early Monday as it lurched to a stop on Zephyr. He was the rookie, a "backstep firefighter" whose job was to pull a small hose to draw water from the 500-gallon water tank on board the firetruck. This fire was so small there'd be no need to hook up to a hydrant.

The time was 5:45 a.m., and the sun was about to come up in the neighborhood off Big Bend Boulevard.

Hummert was the first to jump from the firetruck. As soon as he was handed a nozzle, he was fatally shot in the head by a sniper with a high-powered rifle. The sniper was hiding, apparently in a second-floor room in a home across the street.

At first, when Hummert went down, the other firefighters thought perhaps he'd been struck by something flying off the pickup, sources say. When they realized it was gunfire, they ducked for cover and were pinned down for about 45 minutes, afraid to move, sources say. Two Maplewood police officers who soon arrived -- Sgt. Mike Martin and Officer Adam Fite -- were also shot. Martin, hit in the shoulder, was released from the hospital the next day. Fite was critically wounded but is expected to survive.

The gunman was identified as the truck's owner, Mark J. Knobbe, a resident of Zephyr whom neighbors have described as a recluse. Knobbe's house erupted in flames and burned to the ground as the standoff spanned several hours. Investigators on Tuesday recovered a charred body believed to be that of Knobbe.

As police investigators try to retrace Knobbe's steps and determine a motive for his rage, the city of Maplewood is mourning the death of the fallen firefighter, Hummert. His funeral is Friday.

Tragic -- and thankfully rare

According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Fire Administration in Emmitsburg, Md., Hummert becomes the sixth firefighter in the United States since 1990 to be shot to death while responding to a fire scene. No such statistics were kept prior to 1990.

And while that horrific outcome is a rarity, industry veterans -- including the man who helped train Hummert at the fire academy -- say teaching them to be cautious as they roll up on scenes is a growing focus for recruits. Yet this kind of violence at a car fire?

Said Jim Silvernail, fire chief of the Mehlville Fire Protection District: "There's no way to prepare for an ambush."

Hummert was a firefighter-paramedic. After extensive training to become a paramedic, Hummert attended an 11-week training program at the St. Louis County Fire Academy in Wellston. He graduated in March. At the fire academy, Hummert had about 650 hours of training classes under his belt. The classes taught everything from how to load and roll hoses to recognizing a toxic atmosphere. But a sniper at the scene of a car fire?

"You train for things like a structure collapse, a backdraft, a flashover," said Dave Schmalzer, who has been chief instructor at the St. Louis County Fire Academy for 15 years. He helped train Hummert at the academy earlier this year. "But you can't train for an unseen situation. What happened in Maplewood is not predictable."

Schmalzer said Hummert was "a very, very nice, well-mannered, quiet young man. I just couldn't believe this happened."

Before becoming an academy instructor, Schmalzer was a longtime firefighter in Ladue. In those days, he said, "we weren't even conscious of things like this being possible. Even when we went in the city of St. Louis in high-crime areas, on mutual aid calls, we never thought about getting shot."

Since the Maplewood murder, Schmalzer said he's been asked how he'll talk about the incident with the next class of recruits.

"I don't know if I'll address this at all," Schmalzer said. "I'll tell them to be cognizant, and be aware of their surroundings."

Some veteran firefighters interviewed for this story said they thought violence was escalating against firefighters and paramedics.

"I think today we've got more looney-tunes out there," Silvernail said.

And Gary Ludwig, who spent 25 years with the St. Louis Fire Department, said there might be more violence directed at firefighters and paramedics, but he says it's all part of a more violent world.

"Society is more violent today," Ludwig said. "We're just part of the process. We're in that mix."

The national picture

Consider these fatal attacks on firefighters:

  • In Lexington, Ky., in 2004, paramedic/firefighter Brenda Cowan, who was also an emergency medical worker, was shot to death and a second firefighter was wounded as they responded to a domestic disturbance. Cowan, 40, was a 12-year veteran and the first black woman to join the Lexington department.
  • In New Mexico on March 16, 2002, Fire Chief Steven Louis Jones of the Roswell Fire Department was shot in the head as he tried to talk to a burn victim near a burning home. Jones, 46, died 10 days later. Jones hadn't realized that the burn victim was actually the arsonist and had a gun.
  • On March 8, 2000, Lt. Javier Lerma, 41, and Pvt. William Blakemore, 48, of the Memphis Fire Department were shot to death while responding to a residential fire that apparently had been set by one of their comrades. The gunman also killed a sheriff's deputy, Rupert Peete.
  • On Aug. 6, 1996, firefighter John William Swan of the Lagro Township Volunteer Fire Department in Indiana was killed after went to the scene of a crash between a motorcycle and car. The motorcyclist ran into a boat the car was towing. The car's driver shot the motorcyclist, two bystanders and Swan, who was 18.

Ludwig, who is considered a national expert on scene safety, said the case in Lexington underscores the need to have a "staging" area, a safe zone set up near violent scenes so firefighters and paramedics can wait before moving in to fight a fire or rescue victims.
The call in Lexington came out for a woman shot. The department had no policy of staging personnel and apparatus, and firefighters were trained to help patients if the scene appeared safe, Ludwig said. A warning from dispatchers came too late for Cowan.

In an interview Wednesday, Lexington's assistant fire chief, Chuck Fowler, said "there's been a tweaking of the policy" on how firefighters respond to scenes.

"One of the first things we drill into people is, 'Is the scene safe?' It's always been that way, but it's a teaching point. Now we have a little bit more of a 'standback' policy. We're a little more cautious than we used to be," Fowler said.

 Is the scene safe?

Some other attacks on firefighters have resulted in more obvious changes to the way they do business.

Late last month in Chicago, for example, firefighter Donald Cox was shot and wounded as he responded to a house fire in a dicey neighborhood on Chicago's Southeast Side. Fire officials in Chicago said the attack on Cox was the first time in memory a firefighter had been shot there. Cox was an investigator, alone in the area, when he was shot. Officials quickly changed their policy, requiring that all investigators now work in pairs.

Elsewhere in the industry, recruits might learn about how gang members have been known to remove airbags and hide guns in those compartments, or how an explosive could be hidden in a Dumpster. Firefighters position trucks to block an intersection near a crime scene or so firefighters can use it as a shield if problems are anticipated.

"In general, there's more focus on safety since the 1990s," Ludwig said.

Ludwig is a deputy fire chief in charge of EMS for the Memphis fire department. He's had that job for the last three years. Ludwig, 49, has written about 400 articles for industry publications.

"It's my pet peeve, the safety of personnel," Ludwig said. "More classes are popping up regarding scene safety and preparing yourself and things to watch for, people's demeanor."

Neil Svetanics, who was the St. Louis fire chief from 1986 to 1999, has a slightly different opinion of the violence against firefighters. He saw views toward firefighters change in late 1960s and early 1970s with Vietnam protests, arson-for-profit cases and civil rights demonstrations. Firefighters became seen as "being part of the Establishment," he said, and were considered the enemy among some anti-government groups.

"It wasn't unusual to have rocks thrown at your truck or have bullet holes in your truck," Svetanics said. "Before then, when we left the firehouse, we could leave the door open. Today, the TV sets would be gone."

Svetanics believes that violence was worse then toward firefighters. "Now it's unusual but it does happen."

Firefighters at every firehouse in St. Louis have access to body armor in case they venture into a hostile environment, Svetanics said. More paramedics than firefighters wear it though. County fire departments generally don't carry it.

"In cases like the one in Maplewood, you're not dealing with rational people," Svetanics said. "I'm going to armchair quarterback a bit by saying that nothing could have been done for that firefighter to protect himself. That was a routine call. There's no way he could've avoided what happened unless he was a mind-reader. It was a nice neighborhood, and it was about as routine a call as you get."

Svetanics, 68, has been in firefighting for 46 years. He is currently the chief of the Lemay Fire Protection District.

"It's such a sad situation," he said of Hummert's death. "No warning whatsoever."

Bill Bryan covered the police beat in St. Louis for more than 30 years with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Globe Democrat. 

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