A sudden blow to the back of the head
Valentino Tagliafierro is a professional firefighter with the fire department of the city of Duisburg in Germany. He also volunteers as head of the komba gewerkschaft trade union’s Fire and Rescue Services division at national level and at local level in his home state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Several years ago he was attacked while responding to an emergency. In this interview, he talks about what happened that day and ways of improving protection for first responders.03 Dec. 2019
You suffered violence on the job. What happened, exactly?
It was late at night, and we had been called out to help a woman who had collapsed. The patient’s husband launched into a tirade of abuse and cursing almost as soon as we arrived on the scene. At first we were able to ignore this, but when we started to treat the patient, his behavior became quite obstructive.
It seems we weren’t working fast enough for his liking. And then, suddenly and without any warning or provocation, I received a sharp blow to the back of my head.
How did you react?
As you can imagine, I was totally stunned at first. I mean, the atmosphere had been very tense right from the outset, but I certainly wasn’t expecting things to get physical. So anyway, we attempted to de-escalate the situation, but the man would simply not calm down. In the end, we had no choice but to call the police.
What happened then?
We laid a complaint, but the case ended up not going to court. I’ve heard similar stories from other firefighters. To this day, there is a general lack of willingness to report these sorts of incidents. The prevailing sentiment is that there’s no point as nothing will change anyway, but that couldn’t be more wrong. It is vital that all incidents of violence on the job are reported.
What happened to you was several years ago. What’s changed since then?
It’s quite a paradoxical situation, really. Opinion polls suggest that firefighters are among the most respected professional groups in society. But that’s not what we’re seeing out on the job. Out on the job, that respect can be a little wanting.
So what’s changed? Well, generally speaking there has been a gradual increase in awareness of violence against emergency first responders. But there is still room for improvement. Violence prevention is a long game.
Judging from the media coverage, it would seem violent incidents are on the rise. But is that backed up by the actual figures?
Anecdotally, violent incidents, whether verbal or physical, seem to have increased over the years. And any incident is one incident too many. Our emergency first responders are there to help. They put their lives on the line for others, and they shouldn’t be the target of aggression or abuse. They deserve our respect and our appreciation.
A survey of first responders published by komba in association with the accident insurance industry and the North Rhine-Westphalia Ministry of the Interior shows that 92 of respondents have experienced verbal abuse on the job, and 75 percent have experienced physical abuse. 83 percent of those who suffered physical abuse did not see the attack coming, meaning their experience was identical to what I experienced several years ago.
What will it take for our first responders to be able to go about their work safely and unhindered?
Komba has been championing this issue for a number of years, with the result that, in North Rhine-Westphalia at least, we have now managed to build up a multi-agency action alliance. The alliance has discussed a number of concrete measures to improve safety for our front-line personnel, and we are currently in the process of implementing them. The resulting action plan was published recently.
Can you give some examples of these measures?
One of the first measures to be implemented was the introduction of mandatory incident reporting. As of 2019, employers of first responders in North Rhine-Westphalia are legally required to report incidents of violence and willful damage to emergency vehicles and equipment.
Further measures aimed at improving protection for first responders and preventing violent physical attacks will be phased in over the next three years. For instance, work is currently under way on an app that will make it easier to report these kinds of incidents.
What about support people for those affected by violence?
The action plan envisages having psychosocial support-style counselors permanently available in fire brigades. It also envisages making violence against first responders a mandatory consideration in workplace hazard assessments. Another vitally important part of the plan relates to special training and professional development for front-line first responders and their commanders.
By having a fully developed and regularly updated education program, we will be able to train our people in how to prevent violence in high-risk situations and give them the skills they need in order to deal with violence when it arises. The Fire Service Institute in Münster is currently developing this program. The institute is the central education and training organization for the fire services in North Rhine-Westphalia.
The action alliance has a three-year mandate, as I indicated earlier. The task right now is to put the measures into practice. We’ll then be undertaking an initial review in 2021, so we can see what’s working well and what needs follow-up. So, violence against emergency first responders is an issue we will be dealing with for some time. We will also be reporting on it at INTERSCHUTZ.
It won’t be the first time that komba gewerkschaft has been at INTERSCHUTZ. Why does your trade union take part at the show?
As firefighters and emergency rescue professionals, we value INTERSCHUTZ as a platform for learning about all the issues and challenges affecting our sector. It is also an opportunity for us as union representatives to pick up key insights that we can pass on to our members.
We value the networking opportunities, and we use the show to raise awareness of issues that are important to us. Apart from violence on the job, the important issues that we would like to champion on behalf of our people include health protection and the need to attract more newcomers into the profession.
komba gewerkschaft trade union’s action plan to combat violence against emergency first responders
komba gewerkschaft is affiliated with the German Civil Service Federation (dbb beamtenbund und tarifunion). It is Germany’s specialist trade union for municipal and state-level government employees and employees of former (privatized) municipally and state-owned service enterprises. Its Fire and Rescue Services division is staffed by fire and rescue professionals whose job it is to advance the interests of their fellow professionals in dialogue and negotiations with employers, government and industry associations. You can find out more about komba gewerkschaft here: www.komba.de (German)
The union’s action plan and study on violence against emergency first responders are available at
• Aktionsplan "Gemeinsam gegen Gewalt" (German)
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