When Mesa SWAT officers responded to a deadly standoff last week, three firefighters who are highly trained as tactical medics could do nothing but sit helplessly at the fire station and listen to the drama unfold over their radios.
The specially trained paramedics listened as one man was pulled from a driveway after being shot to death and as SWAT officers were forced to fatally shoot the suspect.
The medics are at a frustrating crossroads: They are trained and prepared to help victims in urban war zones, yet they can’t go because the city has no money to officially recognize the program.
Firefighters instead are dispatched to wait a few blocks away from the danger, then called to the scene once it’s safe.
"It’s about faster medical care, for the suspect and SWAT," said Mesa police Sgt. Chuck Trapani. "(Tactical medics) can give medical care on the spot, whereas it could take an engine 10 minutes to get to the scene from where they are staging."
In dicey situations, such as when treating gunshot wounds, seconds mean everything. When the danger of being shot at is high, a tactical medic can move in with the SWAT team to treat a patient immediately.
During the SWAT standoff Aug. 13, a tactical medic could have been part of the rescue team that approached victim Jim Early, who was lying shot in the driveway. Early was pronounced dead at the scene.
Mesa firefighter Chris Licence is a tactical medic who spearheaded Mesa’s old program until it was slashed in 1993.
Putting a firefighter who isn’t trained in tactical situations too close to the action could be disastrous.
"To a firefighter who doesn’t know tactical techniques, it could cause delays or even fatalities," Licence said. "You can’t expect a cop to do their job when they’re also protecting a firefighter."
Tactical medics go through the same extensive training each month as SWAT officers. While medics don’t carry guns, they wear full SWAT gear and train with firearms in case they need to back up an officer or protect themselves.
But the money needed for overtime pay, monthly training and equipment for the medic program just isn’t there, officials say.
Police and fire officials requested about $40,000 each to reinstate the program this year, but the funding was not granted in the 2005-2006 budget adopted June 30, due to Mesa’s lean financial times. "It’s been identified as a need, but other priorities take precedence," said Mesa assistant fire chief Gil Damiani. "It’s not looking very bright." Several other Valley agencies, including Chandler and Scottsdale, have tactical medic programs. Mesa’s SWAT team averages about 100 calls a year.