St. Paul fire EMT Thomas Hernandez and Capt. Mike Hamburger walked shoulder to shoulder as they approached wounded victims sprawled out in a long, dark hallway, with one police officer leading the way and another bringing up the rear.
“Let’s stay single file,” St. Paul fire SWAT medic Sean Lofgren said as he guided them to minimize exposure to Hernandez and Hamburger.
The medics got to their victim safely during the recent exercise aimed at training police to escort fire personnel through dangerous situations. It’s the first time St. Paul police and fire are training together in large-scale exercises that mimic shootings and explosions, marking a turning point in how law enforcement think about interagency cooperation and best practices for saving victims. Authorities said the training will be invaluable for future rescue missions large and small.
Firefighters and EMTs had been taught to wait for police to clear a scene before rescuing victims, which could take longer than is ideal in large buildings or complex events. Victims could die by bleeding from treatable injuries.
By the end of the week, 380 St. Paul police officers and 220 firefighters will have completed training that teaches them how to enter “warm zones,” crime scenes that are not 100 percent safe. (St. Paul firefighters are cross-trained as paramedics or EMTs.)
“To make a difference, we have to be there in the first 10 minutes,” said Lofgren, one of the organizers and trainers. “Any delay can cost lives.”
Lofgren, police SWAT Cmdr. Tim Flynn and Sgt. Jim Falkowski said it’s the type of training they’ve been advocating for years, but last year’s fatal workplace shooting at Accent Signage Systems in Minneapolis and the Newtown, Conn., school shooting have added a sense of urgency and relevance.
“It’s important for cops to be prepared for these types of incidents,” Falkowski said.
Minneapolis police and fire underwent similar training in 2011, which was key in handling the Accent Signage shooting, Flynn said.
The partnership between police and medical personnel is crucial because paramedics and EMTs don’t wear body armor or carry weapons.
“It helps knowing what we need to do,” Hernandez said. “It helps to know the police are there to protect us.”
Training, funded by two grants, started in January and wraps up this week in a vacant building in St. Paul. The city opened it at no cost to others, attracting more than 30 police, sheriff’s, state and fire agencies from Hermantown, Minn., to South Dakota. About 100 outside personnel will complete training. Ramsey County 911 and police dispatchers have also participated.
Plymouth Deputy Fire Chief Kip Springer said it’s the first time he’s seen such comprehensive training in his 25 years in the profession.
“This is a much more coordinated effort,” said Springer, who will bring the curriculum back to his department.
The training is based on Department of Homeland Security-approved curriculum, called 3-ECHO (Enter, Evaluate, Evacuate), created a few years ago by a consortium of Minnesota law enforcement and military medical personnel.
In the exercises, a “contact team” of two officers was sent into a crime scene to confront the suspect, an actor who fired simulated gunfire at police. Once the officers cleared the area of immediate threats, an “escort team” of officers guided EMTs to the victims.
Escort teams are taught to provide 360-degree cover and to never leave their medics regardless of what happens.
SWAT medic Ken Adams taught an EMT how to straddle and work on a victim to minimize exposure to gunfire.
At the end of a recent training session, a gunman fired on officers and medics in a hallway as a victim lay on the ground.
“Get your medics out!” trainer and SWAT Sgt. Brad Hazelett yelled.
The medics pulled the victim into a nearby room that officers had already checked and announced, “Clear!” Their escort team provided cover, and other officers pursued the suspect.
“There are 10 cops down there!” Flynn called out. “You don’t need to send everyone into the firefight!”
Earlier, Flynn talked about using personnel smartly, noting that throwing large numbers of officers at a threat wasn’t ideal and could cause problems. In some classes, officers accidentally shot each other with simulated gunfire similar to paintball rounds.
“Our goal is to get everyone on the same page,” Flynn told attendees. “You need to think about this. You need to practice this.”