Increasing number of Seattle firefighters reporting cases of assault, threats and slurs on the job

Seattle firefighters are experiencing hazards while responding to scenes, and those risks are not related to battling flames and smoke. 

In April 2022, Seattle Fire Department launched a new system to track assaults, threatening behavior, and slurs aimed at crews on the job. The numbers officials released to FOX 13 News in a public data request give a clearer picture of the dangers they’re up against every day.

In 2021, firefighters reported 13 cases of assault, threats or slurs against them while responding to a call. Those numbers were reported to leaders within the fire department by email. With the launch of the online tracking portal, the number of cases jumped up to 135 in 2022—roughly a 930 percent increase year-to-year.

Not all the incidents in the database involved physical violence. However, there were dozens of times when fire crews were in jeopardy:

  • One report on June 3, 2022, said firefighters in Engine 30 were threatened by a woman wielding a knife yelling, "I’m going to [explicit] kill you!"
  • One report on June 12, 2022, said a firefighter from Aid Unit 5 was checking on an unresponsive man using pressure points behind the ears. When the man came to, he swung a punch and "donkey kicked" the firefighter in the thighs.
  • One report on July 22, 2022, said another firefighter from Aid Unit 5 was slapped in the face by a patient.

The change in how this data was collected, which may have made it easier to report the incidents, could account for some of the increase in total cases. However, the Seattle Fire Department said crews were responding to thousands more overdose and mental health-related emergencies every year. This puts them at greater risk of harm.

In a February letter from Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins, he said firefighters responded to more than 5,200 drug use-related calls in 2022, which is an average of 14 calls per day. In 2021, firefighters responded to more than 3,600 drug use-related calls, and about 3,000 calls in 2020.

City council member Lisa Herbold is the chair of the city’s safety committee. She has been trying to find ways to better protect firefighters since last fall, when some of this assault and threatening behavior data began to surface. During a meeting in September, Herbold explained she previously asked Scoggins to help her understand the data.

"To see how many initial dispatches that don’t have a flag for a police department escort, might have had a final disposition that resulted in a scene of violence," said Herbold. "I wanted to see if there was a trend of a particular call type that should include an SPD escort from the beginning."

"Chief Scoggins reported back saying he had done that analysis I requested and found that both overdose calls and seizure calls might be good to consider for an automatic joint response with SPD escorting SFD. This is because patients, who receive Narcan or who are coming out of a seizure for another reason, can be unaware of their surroundings and have an initial violent reaction. This is a near-term change that the fire department is considering in conjunction with 911, while the Joint Safety Committee considers other recommendations to protect the health and safety of our firefighters, EMTs and paramedics," said Herbold during the September meeting.

Denouncing the violence against firefighters, Herbold said she would continue supporting funding and measures to increase recruiting and safety. The council member wrote in a statement, "I’ve championed funding for items such as ballistic vests to ensure our firefighters have the appropriate tools to stay as safe as possible. I work with Local 27 to find ways to proactively mitigate these hazards."

In a written statement from Scoggins, he acknowledged prior to the launch of the online portal system, "there wasn’t a standardized way to track these concerning incidents."

"As a result of this new process, we have greater confidence the reported numbers reflect the challenging situations our members are facing. Having solid data helps us work with all the key players -including the Mayor’s Office, City Attorney’s Office, Seattle City Council, the King County Prosecuting Attorney, Seattle Police Department and our union partners - to improve the safety of our personnel and holding those who assault them accountable to justice," wrote Scoggins. 

The fire chief gave credit to Herbold and city council member Andrew Lewis who will be advancing, "legislation to make it illegal to prevent a firefighter from fulfilling their official duties."