The responsibilities of a fire department span a wide range of tasks, but patrolling streets and acting as a deterrent to crime are not typically among them. That is exactly what firefighters in our nation's capital were told to do, however, igniting a debate that could spread to other areas around the country.
Washington, D.C. firefighters forced to shoulder more responsibilities
Government officials in Washington, D.C., faced a storm of criticism after ordering local fire departments to help deter crime. While still expected to respond to emergency calls, these firefighters were forced out of the firehouse during overnight hours — a "soft post" — and positioned at key intersections throughout the city. The intent of the directive is to provide a visible reminder that first responders are in the area and can react quickly to any kind of public safety problem.
"Shifting our firefighters and apparatus away from their duties and responsibilities to perform tasks for which they aren't trained … is senseless," city council member Tommy Wells told The Washington Post. "When the need for additional safeguards against crime is identified, the mayor should refocus our police force to address those concerns."
Although some firefighter training is being expanded to include emergency response, soft postings differ in the degree of preparation. Firefighters often lack the critical training needed to step in to a wider variety of law enforcement situations, ranging from theft to active shooters.
Firefighters push back on soft postings
Washington, D.C.'s Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, Paul Quander, argues that soft posting is a beneficial strategy. Well-positioned trucks can speed up crisis response times if firefighters are already on the streets. San Diego is considering a similar approach to encourage fast reactions, as the city may implement two-person response crews around its area. However, these crews would be operating as general firefighters, not taking on soft posting duties like deterring crime.
Kenneth B. Ellerbe, a fire chief in the capital, told The Washington Post in 2012 that soft postings also increase the visibility of the fire department in the community, which may improve public perception and potentially grow the budget.
However, not all firefighters or government workers see things the same way. Many are concerned about the safety risks of placing firefighters in potentially dangerous situations for which they are not trained.
"Not only are my members not trained as police officers, they are not properly equipped to handle police matters, yet could be called upon to become involved in various situations that places them in harm's way," Ed Smith, president of the Firefighters Union, said in a statement following the soft postings.
Ordering firefighters to take soft postings may be feasible if more comprehensive training was offered to individuals. While other states are following federal recommendations for more emergency response training for fire departments, these efforts focus on providing diligent training before changing how firefighters react to a crisis. Without this vital step, expanding firefighter duties is a dangerous move that puts first responders at risk.
News brought to you by Envisage Technologies, building software for law enforcement, public safety and the military. Ready. By Design.