After standoff and axe attack, Mission may outfit firefighters with body armour
Mission fire chief says threats of violence highlight increasing risks for responders
Burning buildings aren’t the only risk that firefighters face on the job.
Mission may soon outfit its firefighters with body armour following a series of worrying interactions in recent years.
Mission city staff have recommended the municipality immediately spend $15,000 on the body armour. They cite four different events over the last two years, including an “attempted axe attack” on a deputy chief attending a burning complaint and a recent standoff in which crews responded to an outbuilding fire only for the situation to turn into a police standoff.
‘A dark turn’
Assaults and violence directed at firefighters remains rare, Mission fire chief Mark Goddard writes in a report delivered to council alongside the request for funding. But, he said, they’re becoming more common as crews deal with more people in varying states of agitation and mental unrest. He said the situation is also impacted by a lack of police and ambulance crews that sometimes leave fire crews alone on “unknown high-risk situations.”
Goddard said the death of a Burnaby RCMP officer killed while defending a bylaw officer underscored the uncertain risks faced by responders tasked with dealing with unpredictable situations.
Goddard said that as the number of interactions with the public rises, so too are the rare incidents that involve a threat of violence.
In one case, Goddard said that a firefighter attending a burning complaint was approached without warning by a person wielding—and swinging—an axe.
“Had he not been alerted by another firefighter on scene, he would have been injured,” Goddard wrote in his report to council.
In one tragic account included in the report, a firefighter wrote about an incident in which they responded to a medical call. After being flagged down on the side of a road, they descended a gully to find a young woman who was unresponsive and showing no signs of life. While crews were confirming she could not be revived, a nearby man became aggressive, and started “stomping, flexing and charging at us,” until being told to leave. The man’s friends told crews he “was high on meth” and upset because the woman was his girlfriend.
In another account included in the report, a member wrote that firefighters attended another burning complaint in a gully only to be told, as they approached the fire, that “if you try to come across that creek again, you’re going to see just how bad it gets for you.”
One of the firefighters said the situation was troubling, in part because of the sense that caving to threats would empower such people and render fire bans ineffective.
“Our crew felt completely vulnerable to the possibility of being attacked,” the firefighter wrote. “The game has changed out there and taken a dark turn.”
More recently, fire crews responded to a report of a structure fire in rural Mission. They started to try to quell the blaze only to have police arrive and tell them to evacuate immediately because the occupant of a nearby house was believed to be armed and potentially suicidal. (The man later took his own life.)
Goddard writes that the increased risk comes partly as a result of the involvement of firefighters in trying to mitigate the overdose crisis. Fire crews frequently administer naloxone and the reversal of an opioid’s calming effects can leave a patient in a state of agitation.
He was careful to note that the homeless population does not pose a “statistical” risk to firefighters. But more incidents bring a higher chance that something will go wrong.
“Knowing the mental state of any given patient or bystander is beyond the capabilities of reasonable expectation but this ambiguity cannot become a barrier to providing often life saving care,” Goddard wrote.
Other Canadian fire departments have also explored the possibility of buying body armour, although sometimes for different reasons.
Red Deer emergency services have outfitted fire crews and medics with bulletproof vests. Some Alberta paramedics already wore body armour, that department’s fire chief said in 2021.
In 2017, the Calgary Fire Department set out to buy armour that would provide protection if crews needed to respond to a mass shooting event.Vancouver firefighters also have recently gotten access to armour to allow their involvement in those situations.
Armour is considered useful in such cases to allow crews to access patients while an active shooter may remain at large. No other Fraser Valley communities are known to outfit their crews with body armour. In BC, those wearing body armour must have a permit. Those rules were brought in to prohibit gangsters from using body armour
Mission council will make a decision at its meeting Monday afternoon.