ATLANTA, Ga. (AJC) -- When a Suwanee homeowner took five firefighters hostage earlier this month, he told the victims he targeted them because they didn’t carry guns.
Basically, said Tim Hollingsworth, one of captives, he and his co-workers were sitting ducks.
In his opinion, at least one firefighter should be allowed to carry a handgun when crews respond to an emergency. “I would feel safer if I had one,” said Hollingsworth, a former Gwinnett County sheriff’s deputy. “I’m ex-law enforcement, and I feel perfectly safe carrying a firearm anywhere.”
Questions about whether firefighters should carry firearms have been swirling in the public safety community ever since the April 10 incident in which Lauren Brown faked a heart attack, then took firefighters hostages when they responded. The 55-year-old Brown, who was angry with some family members and upset about financial problems, was killed in a subsequent shootout with a Gwinnett County SWAT officer.
While the state’s nearly 30,000 firefighters are not prohibited by law from carrying firearms on-duty, no Atlanta-area fire departments currently allow the practice.
The Georgia Firefighter Standards and Training Council, the governing body that certifies firefighters and inspects fire stations, has no policy against it. But it’s frowned upon by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, according to Shawn Kelley, the association’s director of strategic services. Kelley said he didn’t know of any department that arms firefighters.
“Police officers think and are trained in a different realm where they’re always suspicious of everyone they deal with that harm may come to them,” Kelley said. “When firefighters come across these kinds of scenarios, we call for the police and wait for the police before we take any further action.”
It’s unusual, but not unprecedented, for firefighters to become targets of violence.
Four months ago, two firefighters were ambushed and killed in upstate New York. William Spengler took aim at firefighters who responded to a blaze he intentionally set at his house in December. Two other firefighters and a police officer were injured.
In response to such incidents, a fire department in Clark County township of Bethel, Ohio, last year began allowing a few selected firefighters to carry concealed handguns. The township’s Fire and EMS department chief, Jacob King, told the Dayton Daily News last week that the Gwinnett fire hostage standoff was “a perfect example of why we took this stance — to give us the ability to have an exit strategy.”
Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said that there would be training issues, as well as liability issues, if fire departments started arming employees.
“One of the reasons that police are so careful is because you have huge liability issues,” Porter said.
There’s also an inherent danger in taking firearms or ammunition near flames. Pardue once battled a blaze inside an Army/Navy surplus store. “I kept hearing something go off. Pops and bangs,” Pardue said. “I thought it was just paint cans. After the fire cleared, we saw it was the ammunition going off and there was shrapnel all over the place. The casing became a projectile because it ripped open.”
Gwinnett County fire department spokesman Capt. Tommy Rutledge said, “At this time, there are no talks of arming firefighters that I am aware of.” Instead, firefighters are trained to back away and call police whenever they recognize a potentially violent situation, he said.
Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin J. Cochran said the cost of providing weapons for 1,100 members of his department, along with the training, certifications and re-certifications, would be too high given to the low probability of another hostage incident like the one in Gwinnett.
“I do not believe it is significant justification for arming firefighters with weapons solely based on the potential that it could happen in Atlanta,” Cochran said.
A handful of Georgia cities employ a strategy popular in some northern states. They require all their firefighters to be cross-trained as certified law enforcement officers. The cities that cross-train their firefighters as police officers are: Aiken, Bainbridge, Grovetown, Harlem and Social Circle.
The Bainbridge public safety workers carry guns like typical cops do when dispatched to police incidents, but stash them in the trunk of their patrol car and change into firefighter turnout gear when dispatched to fires, said Frank Green, the deputy director of the Bainbridge Department of Public Safety.
As a result, the city’s firefighters are trained and conditioned to respond to menacing suspects, and their guns are back at their vehicle if needed. Green stopped short of recommending cross-training as a model for all departments, though. He says the idea often meets with resistance.
“There’s a lot of opposition to it because a lot of law enforcement officers don’t want to be firefighters,” Green said. “And a lot of firefighters don’t want to be law enforcement officers.”