Developing a Firefighter Personal Firearms Policy

So, you’ve got a firefighter who wants to carry a personal firearm in the station and on duty. Now what?

Of all fire policy issues, could any stir greater passion and personal feelings than the right to carry a firearm? We may argue about best practice when it comes to various response policies, and personnel policies are, generally, pretty dry. But the right to carry a personal firearm on duty? Just put that one out on the station floor and stand back.

Good policy, however, is the best way to navigate this minefield. Good policy diffuses the passion of Second Amendment arguments and sets a dispassionate, professional tone. Why should a chief wander into this minefield armed (as it were) with only personal opinion and anecdotal evidence? Why put yourself in that position? No, a chief should instead have specific policies addressing all manner of firearms on-duty.

Lexipol has completely revised its fire service firearms policies and will be issuing them to agencies over the balance of this year. These policies address duty firearms during fire investigations (for those members with arrest authority) and personal firearms on duty (for all members). This article focuses on personal firearms.

A Firearms Policy Roadmap

The primary purpose of good policy is risk management. Successful policy reduces risk to members and the department, thereby reducing liability. A personal firearms policy is no different. As with few other policies, however, firefighter personal firearms policy should accomplish the goal of managing the risk to other members and the public while making sure member rights are not violated.

1. Start with the law
Policy must first be consistent with the law. There are specific federal restrictions on carrying firearms, including proscribed no-carry zones, such as inside federal facilities, post office properties, veteran’s hospitals or facilities, and gun-free school zones.

In addition, there may be state restrictions. For example, Kansas, which permits personal firearms in the workplace, prohibits them from being carried into private buildings and public grade schools that have posted appropriate signage indicating firearms are prohibited.

So, before we get into any other details, federal and perhaps state law already creates scenarios where a firefighter carrying a personal firearm would be restricted from carrying out his or her duties, based upon location of the response.

2. Put law into practice
In states where employers cannot restrict an employee from carrying a personal firearm, policy should reflect that right but also mandate that employees satisfy all state requirements, starting with having a permit and including any safety restrictions such as mandatory training and storage lock boxes. Also, the department should name an officer or administrative position responsible for keeping all records on members who choose to exercise such rights.

The particular right granted to an individual also affects how the policy is written. If a state law permits the use of a firearm only in self-defense of a perceived threat of bodily harm, the policy should reflect that restricted use and prohibit the drawing of the firearm for any other purpose. The same goes for so-called parking lot laws, which prohibit an employer from restricting an employee from having a personal firearm in their vehicle in a parking lot.

Why should a chief wander into this minefield armed (as it were) with only personal opinion and anecdotal evidence?

3. Incorporate best practice
After making sure the policy accurately reflects the law, it’s important to move on to best practice to further manage risk. Lexipol adheres to the belief that in the absence of state law or regulation, best practice is to prohibit personal firearms in the workplace. The policy is simple and straightforward: Members are prohibited from possessing a firearm while on-duty or while on or in department property or vehicles.

However, where state law prohibits an employer from restricting the possession of a personal firearm, or where a parking lot law exists, it’s important to ensure the department imposes all available restrictions on the employee’s possession and use of the firearm. In states like Kansas, where a firefighter may carry a personal firearm while on-duty, policy should specify conditions under which a firearm should be secured, such as while fighting a fire, conducting rescues, treating a patient, entering a burning vehicle or structure, conducting drills, and physical fitness training.

Best practice can also include:

  • How notice is given to the department by the member
  • Training that is more comprehensive than required by state law
  • The use of department-provided methods to secure a weapon during response, such as vehicle lock boxes
  • Rules on type of holster and active security measures on the weapon

However, before imposing such restrictions departments should review proposed language with local counsel.

Where the law permits carrying of a personal firearm, some departments have instituted policies stating that the carrying of a personal firearm shall not interfere with department response or performance of duties. This statement, combined with no provision or method to secure a weapon during response, puts the employee in a catch-22 of chancing department discipline every time they roll to a call with a weapon.

As with all policies, a firefighter personal firearms policy should be well advertised and trained on repeatedly in order to be effective.

Personal Firearms Do Not Live in a Bubble

While prohibiting or restricting personal firearms, departments should simultaneously acknowledge the legitimate concerns members may have for their personal safety. Policies and procedures written to directly address personnel safety during violent incidents include those addressing active shooter/violent incidents, tactical withdrawal and soft body armor.

These policies provide balance to personal firearms prohibitions or restrictions by making clear the commitment the department has to member safety by providing personal body protection and granting members the authority to determine when and where to advance or withdraw from a violent or potentially violent situation.

Active shooter/violent incident policy and procedure should address:

  • Development of an active shooter/violent incident plan and plan guidelines
  • Procedures for maintaining scene safety
  • Designation of zones and where members should stage, depending on scene status
  • Communications procedures

Tactical withdrawal policy and procedure should address:

  • Conditions under which a member is permitted to withdraw from a call for service
  • Conditions that should cause initiation of a threat assessment
  • Withdrawal options
  • Withdrawal guidelines
  • Patient care considerations
  • Communications guidelines

Body armor policy should include:

  • Guidelines for the type of soft body armor provided by the department
  • Conditions under which members are authorized or required to wear soft body armor

These policies give members the tools and authority to provide for their personal safety and to determine conditions under which a scene is stable and when to withdraw, should a scene deteriorate.

More Change to Come

To say that guns in the workplace is an evolving issue is an understatement. Will we see personal firearms become a subject of collective bargaining? Will we see lawsuits by employees against employers claiming infringement of carry rights? As state laws and best practices develop, Lexipol will update its policies as needed. One thing we do know: The issue won’t resolve itself and will require a risk management-based approach to develop and update department policy.

Scott Eskwitt

SCOTT ESKWITT Scott Eskwitt is the former director of fire policy and training content for Lexipol. He previously served as chief of the Fair Haven (N.J.) Fire Department, and was a member of the Fair Haven First Aid Squad and the Red Bank (N.J.) Fire Department. Eskwitt is an attorney and has spent his legal career advising municipalities and fire departments on risk management, human resources and labor relations issues. His undergraduate degree in Industrial & Labor Relations was received from Cornell University and his law degree from SUNY Law at Buffalo.

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