Boyle officials say domestic disturbances are most dangerous for first-responders

February 15, 2004|JIM LOGAN

Boyle County fire and rescue officials said Saturday that the killing of a Lexington firefighter was tragic - and potentially avoidable.

Lt. Brenda Cowan died Friday after she was shot while answering a domestic-violence call in southeast Fayette County. Her crew had arrived before police and was walking toward the home when a man inside opened fire. A second firefighter was wounded.

But "normal procedure" in domestic-disturbance calls, said Boyle County Fire Department Chief Bud Sexton, is to wait until police arrive before approaching a residence.

That's because domestic-disturbance calls, he said, are "the most dangerous situation you can get in."

"You don't go in 'til the police get on the scene," said Sexton, a 50-year veteran of firefighting. "Throughout the country, the normal procedure would be that for EMS, rescue and fire departments, nobody goes on a call like that until police had secured the scene."


Without body armor or weapons to defend themselves, firefighters and EMTs are vulnerable.

"I wouldn't ever have gone in on a domestic dispute without the police," Sexton said.

Brad Ellis, director of Boyle County Emergency Medical Service, agreed.

"In a perfect situation we always wait for law enforcement to get there first," he said.

Perfection is rare at best, however, and "sometimes you're gonna wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time," Ellis said.

That's apparently what happened to Cowan, a 12-year veteran who had been promoted to lieutenant Tuesday.

"I really don't think there's anything they could have done," Ellis said. "I think that guy was waiting for them."

Still, Sexton said, Cowan "should have known better" than to proceed without a police presence.

"I really don't know what their idea was going in like that," said Sexton, who speculated that it was "out of reflex they just went in."

Sometimes, Ellis, said, the circumstances of a call aren't particularly clear. In those cases, he said, crews "take the best information from dispatch" and decide a course of action.

"Normally, we would wait," he said. "Ideally, you would hope law enforcement would get there first."

Clarence Roller, who works full time as a county EMT and part time as a Danville firefighter, has seen domestic disturbances up close and understands the need to wait for police. It can be frustrating, however.

"It puts us in a situation where we can't do anything," he said.

Ken Pflug, a Danville firefighter on duty at the department's Main Street station, said city crews would be "very unlikely to run into a situation like that."

The city's firefighters, unlike Lexington's, aren't "first responders," he said, meaning that rescues and medical emergencies are handled by EMTs.

On Friday's fatal call, he said, Cowan was just doing her job.

"She wasn't trying to do anything out of the ordinary," he said.

For firefighters, even those who didn't know Cowan, her death is personal and a reminder of the inherent danger of their profession.

"It's really a sad situation up there," said Pflug. "It's gonna be hard on all our departments, losing one of our own like that."

As Ellis said, "We're all family."

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