The killing of two firefighters in Webster, N.Y., who with their colleagues were lured to an ambush by an intentionally set fire, is illustrative that not all the dangers firefighters face involve flames and smoke, authorities say.
"Any time you're called out there could be that danger," said Richard Blosky, president of the Firemen's Association State of Pennsylvania, which represents 4,000 members and 1,800 departments statewide. "It's always in the back of your mind. You just never know. It could be a trap."
Mr. Blosky said most departments operate under a policy that if there is any perceived danger to firefighters, they are to back off and wait for police to secure the area.
Pittsburgh Assistant Fire Chief Thomas Cook said that's the city's policy.
"If there is any indication of the possibility of violence, our policy is to wait for the police to secure the scene before we go in and perform the task of firefighting," he said.
The potential for violence can stem from a domestic disturbance, gang violence or a person with mental illness, the firefighters said.
In fact, Mr. Blosky, of Danville, Montour County, and a member of the northeastern Pennsylvania borough, was fired upon this year by a mentally ill man. No one was injured, and firefighters backed off until state police secured the scene.
"There's more in Pennsylvania than people know about yearly. It happens. It's not an uncommon thing, but the public just doesn't realize it," Mr. Blosky said.
Chief Cook couldn't estimate how many calls to firefighters include the potential of violence for firefighters. "It's not infrequent, but I don't know that it happens multiple times per day," he said.
In 1992, when gang violence was gripping Pittsburgh, then-fire Chief Charlie Dickinson ordered firefighters to wait for a police escort before entering neighborhoods known for random gunfire. He didn't name the neighborhoods but said they were where the most drive-by shootings had been.
The point is, Mr. Blosky emphasized, you never know what to expect on a fire call.
"You have to be prepared for the worst. That's one of the issues brought out in the teaching of officers -- the potential danger in responding to alarms."
He doesn't think the New York killings will bring about changes for firefighters.
"I think most departments already have policies in place, but maybe with this they'll be dusting them off and refreshing them."
Michael A. Fuoco: email@example.com or 412-263-1968.