Firefighters often face violence on the job; El Mirage fire chief offers help

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

EL MIRAGE, Ariz. -- Firefighters face danger every time they go out on a call, but often it has nothing to do with flames.

On Wednesday, a crazed gunman in suburban Atlanta took five firefighters hostage when they responded to a call for medical help.  Eventually SWAT stormed the house and killed the gunman, ending the standoff. 

While this example sounds extreme and isolated, El Mirage Fire Chief Howard Munding told 3TV that firefighters are constantly at risk for being assaulted. In a 2006 study Munding put together for the National Fire Academy, more than 50 percent of first responders reported being attacked while on the job.

 “It creates fear for the firefighter,” Munding said.

Firefighter safety first became an issue for Munding back in 1989. After working for the city of Peoria just one year, a firefighter he knew was stabbed while responding to an emergency. He began taking martial arts classes as a way to protect himself.

More than 20 years later, Munding owns his own martial arts studio, Millennium Martial Arts, and has built a program called Street Smart EMS to teach first responders simple skills and maneuvers they can use to get out of violent situations.

“I don't want to teach people to go toe-to-toe with somebody.  I want to teach them how to get out of a situation and get help,” Munding said.

He teaches his program at the Arizona State Fire School and works with any department that asks. He would eventually like to see it became a national program where one person from each department learns the skills and takes them back to teach others.

Some of the skills involve simple observations that help first responders identify people who are agitated or might become violent.

“Nonverbal cues; facial expressions; are they red flushed face?  [Are their] hands opening and closing? Are they just building up?  There are a lot of nonverbal things that go on,” Munding said, noting that hair rising on the back of the neck should be taken as the body’s primal and subconscious warning of danger.

Physical skills involve learning how to deflect a punch, disarm someone or stun an opponent to provide a moment for escape.

Armed with these tools, Munding said firefighters are more prepared to keep themselves safe as they protect us.

According to Munding, at least five Arizona firefighters have been assaulted on the job since 2009, but said his list is by no means complete.