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Threats to firefighters in Pioneer Square, homeless camps escalating

The Seattle Fire Department has started doubling the number of units responding to medical calls in homeless encampments and parts of Pioneer Square. The new policy is a department response after a crowd got aggressive with two firefighters dispatched to a call.

But Seattle Firefighters Union President (IAFF Local 27) Kenny Stuart says that change in protocol is not enough to address the recent escalation of aggressive behavior toward them by some in the homeless population.

Stuart says the most important thing for firefighters is having the ability to do their jobs, but in recent months they’ve seen an uptick in violence toward firefighters responding to incidents as they respond to calls for the public and in shelters.

“We respond to shelters in Pioneer Square where services are provided,” Stuart said. “Where either the people on the street or in the shelters are increasingly aggressive and actually assaulting firefighters.”

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More concerning he says is that the violence they’re seeing is not just against firefighters. It’s also directed at other homeless people, those who work or live in the area, and tourists.

Firefighters say the threat of violence from some parts of the homeless community has become a daily concern. There has been a noticeable increase in aggression that includes verbal assaults, spitting on firefighters, and grabbing and hitting them. And while firefighters head out to work every day knowing they may have to put their life in the line, this is an unnecessary risk that not only endangers them, but their patients.

Stuart blames the increased aggression on the sheer number of people living on the streets, many of whom are in crisis and what he calls the general sense of lawlessness in the city that is being allowed to flourish and people not being held accountable.

“You know we work with the police department every day,” Stuart said. “And police officers are out on the streets and we work together on incident scenes and they appear to be just stretched thin.”

At the same time there are challenges with the arrests and prosecution of violent offenders. Most are back out on the streets in a matter of hours after being arrested.

Stuart says the union and the fire department have been trying to educate the city about the dangers for months, including members of the city council, the mayor and prosecutors. While those conversations have been productive and there have been some changes made, the violence has escalated dramatically during the same time.

He argues that firefighters need to focus on providing emergency medical services and putting out fires, not de-escalating and providing a security force.

From Pioneer Square to City Hall

Stuart is urging the city council, the mayor, the city attorney and the King County prosecutor to take urgent action and coordinate efforts to address the issue.  He says that includes considering increasing the presence of law enforcement in Pioneer Square and other hot spots. It also means the continued sweeps of unauthorized homeless encampments.

“There are predators in that population, among the regular people, that are preying on that population and also creating and unsafe environment for firefighters, for tourists, for workers,” Stuart said.

In a statement, the mayor’s office said, “Mayor Durkan is committed to keeping our first responders safe. She knows the work of our firefighters is challenging, and that they are often the front line health care providers for people experiencing homelessness. She will continue to work closely with the department to ensure they have the resources necessary to maintain safety in all situations, for all concerned.”

City Attorney Pete Holmes said, “An assault on a uniformed first responder is an assault on an institution. My office takes reports on these incidents extremely seriously. These cases are frequently referred to the King County Prosecutor’s Office to consider for third degree felony assault, but the City Attorney’s Office will actively review any incidents that are referred our way.”

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