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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Interfering with first responders would become crime under bill

Voters in Spokane will determine via special election on April 26 if a levy that helps to pay for fire and EMS staffing will be renewed.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Albert James The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – Interfering with a fire or medical first responder could soon become illegal if a bill being considered in the Washington State Legislature passes this session.

A proposed House bill would create a gross misdemeanor for anyone who knowingly interferes with the actions of a firefighter or emergency medical services provider. Individuals convicted would face up to 364 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $5,000.

Washington has laws against driving over unprotected fire hoses, disobeying traffic orders from first responders and obstructing a law enforcement officer. But there is nothing explicitly against interfering in fire and medical personnel attempting to do their jobs.

Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said assaults on firefighters and paramedics can be prosecuted, but there is no recourse for preventing access to a patient, verbally threatening a first responder or otherwise getting in the way.

“There’s no accountability for the person or persons that prohibited us or tried to prohibit us from accessing the situation we needed access to,” Schaeffer told The Spokesman-Review.

That lack of accountability, he said, leads to bad behavior that eventually becomes normalized and tolerated.

Rep. Jenny Graham, R-Spokane, is a sponsor of the bill. She said the bill makes it clear that impeding on a first responder’s ability to do their job should not be tolerated.

“We are sending out a message that if you attack one of these either paramedics or firefighters, that are trying to save somebody, trying to put a fire out – leave them alone and let them do their job,” Graham said.

Staffing levels are already low due to COVID-19, she said. “We need to protect the ones that we have that are working.”

At a House Public Safety hearing on Jan. 21, the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, said the bill would allow law enforcement to arrest those who are in the way of firefighters and paramedics trying to save lives.

Firefighters and paramedics who testified at the hearing said they have had numerous experiences of people getting in their way and hindering their ability to work.

“The distractions that occur because someone is interfering, I can’t speak strongly enough about,” said Daniel Olson, retired chief of Central Pierce Fire & Rescue. “We have to focus very sincerely on solving the problem that’s present.”

Mike Battis, president of the Washington Ambulance Association and director of Ballard Ambulance in Wenatchee, said the state’s recent police reform bills have created a reluctance for police to provide assistance on the scene of fire and medical calls.

“We as EMS professionals have felt like we were out on an island,” he said. “It makes it really difficult to do our job without the presence of law enforcement there.”

Schaeffer said it will take time for the effectiveness of the law to be seen. But it would provide a necessary tool for the protection of his personnel.

“We at least have to try,” he told The Spokesman-Review. “We can’t accept mediocrity or accept any type of violence against our responders.”

Graham said the bill is widely supported and is just common sense.

“They need to be able to do their jobs, to protect us,” Graham said. “I think this is kind of really a no-brainer bill.”

The bill passed out of committee on Thursday and could make its way to the full House for consideration.