FORT WAYNE – The image was as vivid as it was heartbreaking.
Firefighters late at night hosing down an alley where a man had just been shot and killed. Lit by the headlights of a fire truck, a spray of mist hung and glowed in the dark as they washed away his blood.
This decontamination of a public space, freighted with the heaviness of a violent crime, is an obscure part of a firefighter’s job, a service to the city that’s seldom noted. It’s a reminder that firefighters are often called to crime scenes, not only to deal with biohazards but also to care for victims before they are rushed to the hospital.
The somber cleanup in the alley, seared across this reporter’s memory, took place in the spring of 2011 near Scott Avenue and Broadway. It was one of a handful of times the fire department is asked each year to wash away grisly stains left out in the open, Fort Wayne fire officials said.
Every fire truck is stocked with a small biohazard cleanup kit. Before driving away, they make sure the space – the alley, sidewalk, bus stop, street or wherever the crime happened – is safe.
We’ll mediate the situation and get it back to a respectable condition, Fire Chief Amy Biggs said.
Firefighters won’t touch a crime scene until police have finished their investigation. And before the cleansing process begins, firefighters work with city officials to ensure that anything hazardous does not drain into waterways or otherwise create a health risk, the chief said.
Last month, after a fatal drive-by shooting at Indiana Avenue and Rudisill Boulevard, firefighters could be seen scrubbing and hosing the sidewalk clean before police took down the crime scene tape that cordoned off the corner. That same shooting was a clear example of firefighters using their medical training to tend to a victim of violence.
First at the scene of that shooting were police. Next came firefighters who cared for the critically wounded victim until paramedics arrived and took him to a hospital, where he died.
With fire stations at central locations around the city, it’s typical for firefighters to be first at the scenes of violence. In those cases, fire crews are often told to hang back until police show up and say it’s safe for them to approach. But that does not always happen.
A lot of times, we don’t know that we’re going to an incident that’s violent in nature, Chief Biggs said.
For instance, firefighters will sometimes respond to a report of someone having trouble breathing, and they arrive to find overturned furniture and a person with bruises from a domestic dispute. One way firefighters can protect themselves at times like these is by simply wearing their gear, Biggs said.
You put on that gear to separate you from law enforcement, she said. For the most part, that segregates us as the good guys.
The firefighters at Station 12 on South Anthony Boulevard, near East Tillman Road, have handled their share of calls to crime scenes. The station covers the area south of McKinnie Avenue and east of Calhoun Street, which includes neighborhoods where gun violence is common.
This past summer, we had a lot of shootings, Capt. Wyman Ashford said. It just gets tiring. It just gets old to see death all the time.
Beyond the emotional toll, Ashford said, shooting scenes are riddled with uncertainty for first responders.
It’s always helter-skelter when we first get there, he said. It’s a violent scene. People are mad. They’re upset.
Large crowds often gather at these scenes, leaving first responders outnumbered in a sometimes unstable setting. Knowing this puts some of the station’s crew on edge.
I’m not reluctant at all, firefighter Bryan Bechtold said, but believe me when I say I was extremely concerned going to a lot of the shootings just because of the massive amount of people that show up.
In January, Station 12 firefighters were sent to a double shooting at an apartment complex on Serenity Drive. Firefighter Rebekah Freds treated one of the victims, and afterward her bloodstained gear was a reflection of the man’s severe wounds.
I had blood from my waist down. I mean, there was no way to avoid it, she said.
As a remedy, Freds took off her soiled gear, put it in a biohazard bag and donned new equipment. She did not have to clean up any blood left at that scene because she was not treating the man in a public space but rather an apartment building. Authorities are not responsible for cleaning bloody scenes in homes or businesses, fire officials said.
For firefighters, exposure to bodily fluids is just a risk that comes with the job, Freds said. To mitigate that risk when caring for patients, firefighters practice body substance isolation, which means making sure there’s a layer of protection between them and bodily fluids, she said.
Firefighters are trained always to wear gloves during medical calls, and they can take more precautions, like a mask or gown, if needed, Deputy Chief Mark Nelson said.
The point, obviously, is to protect their well-being. But as Station 12 crew member David Park said, there are times when his concerns for his safety are secondary.
Our health is the last thing we’re thinking about when we’re trying to help somebody, he said.