Responder Safety Series

A storm has been brewing for many years across our great Nation.  Some call it differences of opinion while others label it a stand for their way of life.  Regardless of the reason or rationale, responders from all disciplines respond (often at extreme risk) to the peaceful demonstration that quickly escalates into all-out battle.  Agency leaders and all who plan for and respond to civil disturbances must be prepared for the safety of oneself, their partners and communities they serve.

Gangs and Hate Groups

In their 2013 annual crime report the FBI stated, “Gangs pose the greatest threat to America’s safety and security.” The report cited an estimated 1.4 million gang members present across the United States. I remember a discussion with a community leader in Northeast Florida about tagging that was occurring in the upscale neighborhood close to the office where we were sat.  I stated that the tagging I noticed was the result of a nascent gang problem that was growing in this sleepy little beach community.  She very emphatically stated, “We don’t have gangs in our community.”  Which, made me recall a statement from my gang investigator instructor: “If you have tagging, you have gangs.”  Now, this “artistic” form of self-expression may simply be a nuisance, but make no mistake, if it exists in your community, you have gangs.  The FBI defines gangs as:

(Definition does not cover traditional organized crime groups such as “the mob”).

Gangs come in all shapes, ethnicities, colors and beliefs.  You’ve heard of the Crips and the Bloods, MS13 and Latin Kings.  Have you heard of the National Socialist Legion and the Attomwaffen Division, the Patriot Front and Identity Europa or the Proud Boys and Vanguard America? The Pagans and the Warlocks?  The Mongols or the Iron Horsemen? These are just a few of the 33,000 gangs in America, some of which may be in your community. Why mention gangs when the subject is civil disturbance? Because when the little darlings get together to tag over their rival gang spray painted masterpieces (and get caught), or the political rally gets infiltrated by those intent on sowing chaos or a football game is violently disrupted, first responders will be called to quell the violence, care for the injured and extinguish the fires – in short, control the mayhem and bring civility back to their community.

As an incident commander, company officer or ambulance crew member it is your responsibility to be aware of local gang (including hate group) presence and activity.

Know what to do when separated from your response group. Know how to seek cover when shots are fired. And, how to triage on the fly when you’ve got more patients than hands. Clearly, this is not an exhaustive “how to”, but a Gang Awareness overview to get your department, crew or community on the right track.


Intelligence (Intell) is your best friend.  Sometimes you can gather it from your law enforcement contact, but it has been my experience that you may not get all the intell you need – sometimes none from law enforcement.  Why you ask…we’re on the same team…right?  In short, because firefighters have an urge to share. This scenario plays out all too often: the local fire guy (or gal) overhears a little intell about an upcoming operation, stakeout or event and within 15 minutes everyone at the firehouse knows it.  This practice, as law enforcement officers know so well, can get someone hurt – or killed. Build rapport with the local law enforcement folks and emergency management.  It’s extremely difficult to build trust by exchanging business cards across the hood of your car while taking on hostile fire. Over time, and with a lot of patience, a relationship can be built.  While you’re trying to stay on top of the latest wannabe gang or hate group in town:




About the Author:

Frank Montes de Oca served as a firefighter/paramedic for over 38 years and held the positions of fire chief in Springfield, Ohio and Osceola County, Florida. His last appointment – Emergency Services Director in Orange County (Chapel Hill), North Carolina.  Throughout his career Chief Montes de Oca has advocated for responder safety, leadership development and managing organizational change – is an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy, a certified gang technician in Florida and qualified to present training programs for OSHA and the EPA.  He can be reached at or