Firefighter shootings are rare, but singularly tragic events

In the last 20 years, 20 firefighters have been fatally assaulted while on duty. It’s not a common way for a firefighter to die.

When speeding toward a fire or rescue, a firefighter is concerned only with the matter at hand: a blaze, a traffic accident, a heart attack. Getting shot is not on his mind. It’s in the brain’s junk pile along with other useless worries; it’s not supposed to happen.

Long Beach Fire Department Capt. David Rosa became firefighter assault victim No. 20 when he was shot and killed in the early morning of June 25 at the Covenant Manor in Downtown Long Beach.

It’s of no solace to Rosa’s family and friends that just 60 career and volunteer firefighters died of any number of causes while on duty in 2017, the second-lowest number of on-duty firefighter deaths in recent history, or that shooting deaths of firefighters account for less than 1 percent of fatalities in the occupation.

The rarity of the tragedy is meaningless when it actually happens. On the occasion when a firefighter is shot, it is a singularly horrific event that shocks, frightens and saddens a community.

When a firefighter dies in a blaze, it’s tragic enough, but it’s also an occupational hazard, however heroic. Getting shot in an ambush, on the other hand, is plain, brutal murder, and it causes a citizenry to wonder what’s happening to itself. It’s what’s prompting Long Beachers today to reflect on how and why things have come to this point in their town.

One deadly event that resembles Rosa’s killing occurred in Webster, New York, a suburb of Rochester, on Christmas Eve in 2012.

William Spengler, 62, set fire to a home and a vehicle to lure firefighters, whom he shot from a nearby berm, killing volunteer firefighter Mike Chiapperini, and 911 dispatcher Tomasz Kaczowka, and injuring two other volunteer firefighters. Kaczowka was substituting for older members of the fire department so they could be home with their families for Christmas.

The Webster police chief told the press, “People get up in the middle of the night to fight fire. They don’t expect to be shot and killed.”

Spengler, who shot himself at the scene, had previously served 17 years in prison for beating his 92-year-old grandmother to death with a hammer.

Another deadly ambush occurred in 2008 in Maplewood, Missouri, near St. Louis, when 22-year-old Ryan Hummert was responding to a report of a burning pickup truck. Hummert was shot to death as he was exiting his fire truck. It was his first call as a firefighter. The shooter set fire to his own home and died in the blaze.

Maplewood fire chief Terry Merrell told the press, “It’s impossible to say in words the emotion and pain we are feeling now.”

Police said they don’t yet know whether Thomas Kim, the man accused of murdering Rosa, was planning to shoot at firefighters when he set off a blast in his apartment, but we’re well acquainted with the emotional aftermath.

There are more than a dozen similar stories, all brutal and horrifying, and all followed by impressive and somber processions of tribute and mourning from firefighting agencies throughout the region.

People wonder how and why a shooter would wait in ambush to shoot and kill a firefighter and could it happen again. The how is often eventually known; the why is generally maddeningly inexplicable, and will it happen again is, sadly, another thing firefighters in Long Beach will now have to add to their list of things to worry about while speeding to a call.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.