After criticism, Ore. fire chief halts embedding EMTs with riot police
Fire Chief Mike Meyers suspended the operations after community members objected to firefighters and EMTs being dressed in police riot gear
By Allan Brettman
PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland Fire and Rescue Chief Mike Meyers, responding to citizen complaints, has suspended operations of an emergency medical team deployed with police at protests since the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
Meyers acted because of complaints that emergency medical technicians were dressed identically to Portland police riot officers with whom they were embedded — though the Fire Bureau employees were unarmed.
A member of a citizens group called Empower Portland spoke last week before the Portland City Council, telling commissioners the group objects to firefighters dressing in police riot gear, which it says sends a message that the Fire Bureau was not impartial at the event. Empower Portland spokesman Standard Schaefer also displayed a photograph of an embedded EMT who wore a patch associated with support of police on his uniform shirt.
Meyers said he disapproved of the specially trained technician wearing the patch - an American flag in black and white colors with a blue line as one of the stripes -- on his riot gear during a downtown Not My President's Day protest in February.
"That is unacceptable and not appropriate," Meyers said of the patch.
The Fire Bureau for years has deployed emergency medical technicians at public protests, typically keeping them stationed with a truck two blocks from the scene and sending in technicians when called on.
However, Empower Portland representatives have said EMTs took too long to reach the scene of an Oct. 12 clash between protesters and police at City Hall. The confrontation had nothing to do with Trump - demonstrators appeared in the council chambers Oct. 12 to protest approval of a police contract.
Using that incident as an example, Empower Portland representatives met Nov. 22 with fire and city officials to discuss finding a better way to deliver treatment at protest scenes.
That's how the bureau arrived at its decision to embed EMTs with riot officers, Meyers said in an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive.
In doing so, the bureau was adopting a procedure used in other U.S. cities, Meyers said. In those cities, EMTs are dressed in protective gear similar to police uniforms, the chief said.
Since the embedded team was launched, 10 people have been treated at about a half dozen protests, fire officials said, for these reasons: laceration, tear gas, pepper spray, loss of consciousness, diabetic reaction, chest pain and asthma.
But Meyers this week acknowledged the combination of riot gear and a variety of pouches on the EMTs uniform might give the impression a medic is armed with weapons. He is not, the chief said of the all-male unit.
During the suspension of the Fire Bureau's team, Meyers said he wants to explore finding protective gear that is distinct from a riot officer's and has clear "medic" or "EMT" labels on the uniform.
Meyers in an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive spoke at length about the inappropriateness of the EMT wearing the patch, commonly called the "Thin Blue Line Emblem" and associated by some with the "Blue Lives Matter" movement, saying it damages the bureau's reputation.
"That damage is extremely difficult to fix," said Meyers, who was selected as chief of the 700-employee bureau in May. "That sends the message that out of all the things we do - the do-no harm, the firefighters are always ready, we'll be there all the time - we put something like that on and you make a statement to another group that we're taking a side? That has a long-term damage for us. I just want to make absolutely sure we understand every step of the way how we're viewed."
Meyers also said he expected more protests, calling it "the new normal," and that Portland firefighters would need to be aware of "the political environment we're in today."
Meyers on Wednesday informed City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the bureau, of the decision to suspend operations of the embedded team. Saltzman told The Oregonian/OregonLive he supported the decision, adding that he would meet with Empower Portland representatives Monday.
"We don't want our paramedics dressed like police officers," Saltzman said.
Portland police have appreciated having a firefighter EMT in their rapid response units, spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson said, noting that flares and other objects have been thrown at officers at protests.
Meyers said he does not have a timeline about resuming the practice of embedding a technician.
"As fire chief, my role is to make sure people are healthy and safe. Everyone," he said. "We're not taking sides here. We need to be able to treat everyone and treat quickly."
Copyright 2017 The Oregonian
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