SEATTLE — It will soon be a crime to obstruct the work of a firefighter in the City of Seattle.
On Tuesday the Seattle City Council unanimously passed a bill updating city laws to better protect firefighters, who have been experiencing violent encounters on the job.
The legislation sponsored by Councilmember Lisa Herbold and Councilmember Andrew Lewis came after IAFF Local 27, the Seattle Fire Fighters union, sent a letter to City Council in July of 2022 detailing incidents of violence they experienced while responding to fires and medical emergencies.
"Seattle firefighters support this ordinance to ensure that we can provide life-saving emergency services without interruption when called to help. This change will allow firefighters to focus our full attention on the job at hand, so we can save lives and remain safe,” said IAFF Local 27 President Kenny Stuart.
During public comment on Tuesday, some firefighters shared their experiences and the experiences of other crew members. They said crews have had rocks thrown at them, knives pulled on them and had been threatened with metal pipes. One firefighter said he had been called racial slurs and had his life threatened. They said that these concerns about violence can impact their ability to do life-saving work.
Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins said over the past year the department had to call Seattle Police 150 times for assistance.
“Everything you can imagine, from being physically assaulted to being spit on, to things being thrown, like really large rocks,” said Scoggins. “One of our firefighters had to be transported to the hospital.”
The bill passed on Tuesday adds firefighters as "protected public officers" under Seattle law, which makes it a gross misdemeanor to obstruct their jobs.
“We know, of course, that police officers are included, but also fire marshals are included, but not firefighters,” said Herbold, about her concerns over firefighters not being considered protected public officers under Seattle law.
“No employee should fear for their safety from bystanders as they deliver life-saving services. When firefighters are carrying heavy and difficult-to-manage equipment to put out a fire or kneeling over to resuscitate a patient, they are particularly vulnerable. Unfortunately, that vulnerability leads not only to risks to themselves but delays that have a disparate impact on vulnerable communities they serve," said Councilmember Lisa Herbold.
Some people who were opposed to this bill shared that they thought it would disproportionately criminalize people of color and those who are homeless. In order to address these concerns, three amendments from Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda were added to the legislation at the council meeting, which includes:
- Ensuring people will not be charged for obstructing their own care, such as when they are revived by naloxone and may be disoriented and violent
- Reinforcing the expectation that police will consult with the Seattle Fire Department before engaging with people at the scene of a fire department emergency
- Mandating the legislation be evaluated to make sure it’s not having unintended consequences, such as racially disparate charges.
The legislation now heads to the mayor for his signature and will take effect 30 days after it’s approved. If it’s not signed within 10 days, then the new law will go into effect 30 days afterward. The mayor also has the option to veto the legislation.