Local Fire Departments Add Another Tool to Their Belts in Combating Mass Casualty Incidents


Cian Stewart, Contributor

Despite the fact that Marin County has not experienced a significant tragedy like a mass shooting in over a decade, it does not make it immune to the possibility of one happening. “It’s not a matter of if, but when,” says Engineer Olivatti, who has been a paramedic for Ross Valley Fire Department for 8 years.

With school shootings on the rise, the generation of kids in schools today have a new type of danger to deal with that doesn’t even come within the orbit of past generations. A generation in which school shootings have become the new ‘normal’ for mass tragedy incidents. The so called “Columbine Generation”.  

With this new type of threat facing the youth of today, public safety personnel have had to adapt to this modern threat in a society obsessed with weapons of war. After the spike of mass shootings of schools in recent years, it has become apparent that Police,EMS, and Fire departments have had to reshape the way in which they deal with an active shooter on school campuses, or other public places to better preserve the wellbeing and security of our youth.   

In order to increase the survivability of all those involved, the concept of a rescue task force or RTF for short has become the new national standard of how Fire,EMS, and Police departments respond to incidents involving an active threat such as a shooter. To provide security and medical assistance, a rescue task force enters the area after police has cleared but not secured an area. It consists of an integrated team of police officers and EMTs/Paramedics that are in constant communication with fire command to triage, extricate, and provide further medical care for victims. 

In fact, active threats have become so common that the NFPA, National Firefighters Protection Association, has even published a powerpoint on how an RTF is structured and deployed in order to train departments nationally on how to prepare for an active threat.

Firefighters are expected to be a “jack of trades” because of what their job involves,  and therefore they are always adapting and changing the way they work. Especially when it comes to responding to major incidents such as a mass shooting.

I would say our response has changed significantly. When I first started working in San Rafael, we basically had no training, or very little training for active shooter situations,” says Captain Kelly, who has been a firefighter for 15 years, 10 of which were for San Rafael. “Over the last couple of years as these incidences have become more pervasive, we have trained with the PD and the Sheriff Department, been issued tactical safety gear, and now take a more active role in the retrieval of victims from a potentially active shooter scene”. Despite the fact that Captain Kelly has never heard of the RTF concept, he says the way in which they respond is very similar.

The Ross Valley Fire Department has also made changes in the way they respond, utilizing the RTF concept. RVFD changed the way they respond from the previous strategy of staging and waiting until the scene is deemed safe by law enforcement and then entering the area when it is. To the now utilized RTF where EMS enters the scene with police as soon as the area is clear but not secure. Bridging the gap between the responsibilities of both fire and police to better handle the situation. 

“There was also a disconnect between law and fire,” said Engineer Olivotti in reference to the way departments used to respond, “We weren’t on the same page as to how we work together in this type of scenario. Now, we will enter the scene much sooner because we realize the sooner we go in, the more lives we can potentially save”.

Along with their corresponding police departments both San Rafael Fire and Ross Valley Fire train at least once a year for the possibility of a mass shooting.  Despite this, Engineer Olivatti believes it is still not enough because of the caliber of these incidents. He even attends extra training sessions on his own time in order to better prepare for the call he hopes never to hear.