By Michelle Ku
HERALD-LEADER STAFF WRITER Feb 12, 2005
In the year since Lexington fire Lt. Brenda Cowan was killed while responding to a domestic violence call, Owensboro has changed its policy to require firefighters to hold back until police have secured a crime scene.
Lexington has not.
The Lexington fire department has made a handful of minor changes, such as taking steps to improve communication with police and allowing firefighters to wear their own bullet-resistant vests. The department is also studying whether it should provide vests for firefighters.
But the fire department hasn’t changed its policy to require fire crews to wait for police to arrive and secure violent scenes — an idea that was raised immediately after Cowan was shot.
In large part, that’s because firefighters and city officials say Cowan and her crew reacted exactly as they should have when they were called to the shooting on Adams Lane.
“They were following appropriate protocols and safety assessments,” said Rebecca Langston, the city’s public safety commissioner.
The fire department’s safety committee hasn’t completed its review of scene response and on-scene policies yet, Langston said. She said she did not know when the review would be completed but said she “does not anticipate any sweeping changes.”
Owensboro changes policy
Although Lexington hasn’t developed a written policy for firefighters to “stage back,” or wait until police crews arrive, many nearby cities — including Cincinnati, Louisville and Henderson — have had such a standard in place for years.
At least one Kentucky city has developed a policy in response to Cowan’s death.
Owensboro, where firefighters respond with medical care only to vehicle collisions with injuries, created a new policy in case the department is called out on a special run to assist ambulance crews.
“We did not have a written policy directed at violent incidents, but we were prompted by the incident in Lexington to have a written policy,” said Chief Ron Heep of the Owensboro Fire Department.
The new guidelines require fire crews to stage back until police clear the scene.
About half of the fire departments in Kentucky have similar response policies, said Versailles Fire Chief Frankie M. Shuck, who is president of the Kentucky Association of Fire Chiefs. Versailles does not have a policy for firefighters to wait for police at violent scenes.
Shuck said he wasn’t sure how many departments had created a policy as a result of the incident in Lexington, but “departments are seriously looking at this, as well as, I’m sure, Lexington.”
Talk of new policy
Cowan, an 11-year veteran of the Lexington department, and her engine company beat police to a shooting on Adams Lane and were shot at while trying to assist a victim in the front yard.
The victim, Fontaine Hutchinson, 60, and Cowan, 40, died. Firefighter Jim Sandford recovered from the gunshot wounds he received.
Days after the shooting, police Chief Anthany Beatty and fire Chief Robert Hendricks said they would review their policies and that there could be changes in how firefighters respond to crime scenes that haven’t been secured.
The investigation resulted in tweaks to policies and procedures, including additional emphasis on improving radio communication and coordination between the two departments, Beatty said.
For example, police and fire dispatchers try to coordinate so police arrive at violent or risky scenes either before fire crews or along with the fire crews, he said.
In the fire department, it has become a common practice for dispatchers to caution emergency crews when they are deployed to a risky scene, advising them to hold back until police have secured the location.
But staging back has not become standard protocol. It’s a suggestion, and the final decision is made by the crew at the scene, Langston said.
Langston said it would be difficult to unilaterally establish a policy for emergency crews to hold back 1,000 or 2,000 feet.
“Every situation is unique, and I don’t think you can mandate a specific response for all situations,” she said.
The biggest change to come out of the Adams Lane shootings so far is a voluntary policy that gives firefighters who own bullet-resistant vests the option of wearing them on duty.
Langston said she wasn’t sure if any firefighters were wearing the vests regularly.
For the past nine months, a committee has studied whether the department should purchase the vests for firefighters and what standards would have to be established about when the vests should be worn.
The vests could provide an added layer of protection, but the combined weight of firefighting equipment and a vest could lead to heat stress, Langston said.
Mark Blankenship, president of the local International Association of Fire Fighters, said it’s always good to have the best life safety equipment available. But he said he’s concerned people would get an “invincible feeling with a ballistic vest.”
“If you think you need to put a bulletproof vest on to go in there, perhaps you don’t need to be going in.”
Nationally, vests aren’t standard equipment for firefighters.
But some cities, such as Cincinnati and Santa Ana, Calif., provide them as an additional safety measure. Emergency crews there also stage back until after police have cleared violent scenes.
In Cincinnati, firefighters began using vests three years ago after rioting that occurred when a white police officer shot to death an unarmed black man.
The Cincinnati Fire Department has about 80 vests, enough to equip about half the department’s engine companies, said District Chief Will Jones with the Cincinnati Fire Department.
The department doesn’t require firefighters to wear them, he said. “It’s up to the company officer to make the decision on the vest. Usually if one wears it, they all wear it.”
For now, the response of the Lexington fire department to the Adams Lane shootings has been “appropriate,” said Blankenship.
In making any changes, it’s important to make sure policies aren’t so strict that they hinder firefighters from doing their jobs, he said. “You can tie their hands too much to make any decisions, and when you start doing that, you put them into jeopardy.”