By Sarah Grace Taylor
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — Addressing a rise in harassment and violence against Seattle Fire Department personnel, the City Council unanimously voted on Tuesday to make it illegal to obstruct a firefighter’s response to an emergency.
Under Seattle’s municipal code, a range of public officials, from fire marshals to code inspectors, are protected from obstruction. But the code currently does not apply to SFD personnel.
In a 6-0 vote, the council made obstructing a firefighter’s duties — or refusing to leave the scene of a fire department emergency response — a gross misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to $5,000 and 364 days in jail, following pleas from firefighters.
District 1 Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who co-sponsored the bill and chairs the Public Safety and Human Services Committee, described the addition of firefighters to that list of public officers as a “technical change” in an April committee discussion.
“I thought it was stunning that the ordinance does not include firefighters in its current state,” District 7 Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who co-sponsored the bill with Herbold, said after Tuesday’s vote, adding that the new policy “closes an important loophole.”
Lewis said he and Herbold worked with SFD Chief Harold Scoggins and IAFF Local 27, the union representing firefighters, to draft this policy in an effort to stop an apparent rise in obstruction on calls, particularly those in encampments or other sensitive public spaces.
A slew of fire department staff members testified to the council ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, as well as the committee discussion, saying that the obstruction protection was necessary to protect both first responders and patients receiving care.
Concerns ranged from protecting a patient’s medical privacy when they respond to an incident in a public space to protecting the physical well-being of responders and patients, who have been repeatedly threatened and assaulted on calls.
“Violence and the threat of violence at incident scenes — which are our workplace — has increased significantly over the last few years,” Kenny Stuart, an SFD lieutenant and president of Local 27, said Tuesday.
According to Stuart, SFD and the union have created a tracker to monitor these incidents and it shows more than 50 incidences of violence over the last six months. Other firefighters shared stories of being threatened with pipes and broken mops, pelted with rocks and shoved — or otherwise physically obstructed — from administering care or responding to a fire.
“When seconds and minutes count, these violent and distracting actions delay our response and hinder care,” Stuart said, supporting the amended ordinance.
Some community members, however, raised concerns about the overinvolvement of police in otherwise noncriminal calls, and warned that the law could be used as a crowd-control measure during protests, with a disproportionate impact of enforcement on disenfranchised communities, as they described.
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LéTania Severe, who lives in Seattle but is a firefighter in Pierce County, said the city should reject the proposal because of its potential equity issues.
“This bill will not only fail to protect firefighters, it will make things worse for them and the communities they serve, particularly the Black community members who face disproportionate arrests and prosecutions under the existing obstruction statute,” Severe said.
Severe said that the city would likely worsen systemic issues and inequities if they implemented the change without doing an immediate study into the impacts of the proposal.
“If your goal is to improve the work environment for firefighters, there are many things that you can do such as training, more staffing, better schedules, [and] addressing systemic failures — such as our housing failure, our mental health failure, our drug situation,” Severe said.
A memo from council central staff highlighted the risk of racial injustice in the application of this new law, noting that from 2019-23, obstruction arrests were disproportionately made against people of color, with Black people representing about 34% of the arrests, despite making up just under 7% of Seattle’s population.
But council members contend that the bill is designed to prevent situations from escalating into other arrestable offenses, which are unsafe and can carry more serious charges.
“This policy could be implemented without ever needing to make an arrest,” Lewis said, explaining that SFD having the authority to make someone leave if they are obstructing could be enough in many cases without any actual enforcement.
“We’re giving firefighters the legal right to de-escalate. The police are already there, they just can’t do anything right now until a firefighter gets assaulted,” he added.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who was absent from Tuesday’s meeting and did not vote on the legislation, introduced three amendments that addressed concerns around increased police involvement — all of which were adopted.
The amendments prevent someone from being charged in the obstruction of their own care, require SFD and the Seattle Police Department to conduct a study of the racial equity of this new legislation by the end of August, and request the departments create a policy addressing when SPD would engage with an SFD call, suggesting that it be limited to when SFD requests police presence.
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