MARYSVILLE — Firefighters in Snohomish County are bracing themselves for a distressing possibility: they could someday face gunfire while trying to save lives during a mass shooting.
It’s a conversation that never would have happened 20 years ago.
This summer, the Marysville Fire District is training every firefighter on that strategy. The plan would be for police to escort firefighters and medics into and out of crime scenes, within tactical formations. Similar training has been conducted in Everett in 2014 and in Lynnwood as recently as July.
In general, firefighters do not enter a crime scene before police declare it safe to do so. That declaration often happens hours after the first 911 call. In mass shootings elsewhere in the country, victims who have bled to death might have survived if aid was rendered sooner.
Under the new training, firefighters in some circumstances could enter what’s called a “warm zone” — an area that has been searched at least once by police but has not been given the all-clear. That change would give them more access to victims within the first hour, a crucial timeline for life-saving care.
After the first session in Marysville earlier this year, the fire department decided to make the training mandatory, Battalion Chief Scott Goodale said.
“We’re going to train with these guys like it’s bullets flying,” Goodale said. “It’s the very worst scenario. It’s the last place we want to be.”
The Arlington fire chief attended an Aug. 9 training session at Grove Elementary. Afterward, he requested the program for that city as well.
While the training is becoming more common, there are no plans for policies that would require Marysville firefighters to act on it. Instead, Marysville police Lt. Mark Thomas encourages them to keep thinking and talking, and to decide for themselves whether that is something they could do, long before that day comes.
It’s certainly not what firefighters signed up for, Thomas said.
“Who knew this was going to be in our future?” he said. “This is the reality we are facing.”
Plans for the training in Marysville started months before the October 2014 shootings at Marysville Pilchuck High School, Thomas said. The idea came from the firefighters. It represents new thinking after decades of the assumption that police should surround a shooter and wait for SWAT.
In the 1999 Columbine shootings, victims died during the wait.
Society has decided that’s not acceptable, Thomas said. Police don’t have a choice anymore. They go in. Now, firefighters might face a similar decision.
Law enforcement has been learning from the conversation, too, said Marysville officer Stacey Dreyer, an instructor at the Aug. 9 session.
“We’re not used to taking dignitaries into a crisis site,” he said.
Goodale, the fire battalion chief, was on duty the day of the high school shootings that left five dead, including the shooter. Goodale still is being asked to talk to first responders around the country about what Marysville firefighters learned from a mass shooting.
“It changed drastically after Pilchuck … how we go in, how they (the police) go in,” Goodale said. “The incident we had really defined how we need to approach these things.”
The crews now are talking about creating special gear bags for if they ever have to use the training. That likely would take the form of a backpack filled with medical supplies. No backboards. No intravenous lines.
“Nothing that takes time,” Goodale said. “Just keep them breathing, stop the bleeding and get them out.”
At the high school, only one victim had survivable injuries. In the unthinkable case of another mass shooting, there could be victims whose lives depend on getting to a hospital. Snohomish County again saw mass violence July 30, when a gunman killed three and wounded a fourth person at a house party in Mukilteo. A young man with a gunshot wound called 911 on his cellphone. He was taken out of the scene on the hood of a patrol car to waiting medics.
Police and firefighters have to keep working together and talking about how they will communicate during the worst-case scenarios, Goodale said.
“You either have to go hunt for the bad guy and neutralize the threat or treat a patient,” Goodale said. “There’s no way you can do both. If we go in as a team, we can do both. It just takes a minimal thing and that’s awareness.”
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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