SEATTLE — The Seattle City Council voted to pass legislation Tuesday aimed at protecting firefighters responding to emergencies.
The old law provides protection for public officers who are responding to emergencies, except firefighters or other fire department employees, with the fire marshal being the exception, according to a city press release Monday. The new legislation will change that.
The Seattle Fire Department (SFD) has had many incidents of people interfering with firefighters when they respond to calls and are trying to perform life-saving measures on people in need. According to the press release, people have even tried to stop firefighters from putting out fires or threatened to attack them while they are dealing with patients.
"We've had firefighters who've had rocks thrown at them," said Seattle Fire Assistant Chief Chris Lombard. "We have people who've gotten punched. There's also countless death threats or threats of violence."
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The new law, proposed by Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Andrew Lewis, treats firefighters and SFD employees as public officers under the Seattle law. It also allows SFD and the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to collaborate on strategies to create a space and access for firefighters to do their job.
“All we're trying to do is to create another tool to give us space so we can help a community member in need,” said Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins, who gave public testimony before the council’s vote.
Previously, a firefighter had to be physically attacked for police to be able to step in and detain the person. The new law allows officers to arrest a person as soon as they interfere with a firefighter’s work, potentially saving precious time needed to deliver emergency medical care or to put out a fire.
“This is not intended to increase arrests. It's intended as a way to deescalate a situation before it becomes an assaultive one,” Herbold said. "This is the least that we can do to show our firefighters that we support them."
With the passage of the law, SPD will now be required to report on how the legislation is enforced every three months for the first year to make sure there are no unintended consequences.
A person could face obstruction charges under the new law if they are interfering with firefighters or community members trying to help, the press release states. However, a person will not be charged if, for example, they were an overdose patient who became physically aggressive during resuscitation.
“They are first responders. If something is burning, a house is burning, really anything they go and risk their lives to save you and your property," said Nicholas Protich, a resident of Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. “They are trying to do a job, and if people come up and get in their way, it's not going to work.”
Additionally, the new law does not affect anyone's right to observe and record firefighters or police performing their duties.