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Webster, NY Firefighters Killed In 2012 Christmas Eve Ambush Remembered

11:16 AM, Dec 24, 2013   |    comments
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WEBSTER, N.Y. -- The first responders who answered the call for a common car fire on Lake Road in Webster on Christmas Eve never expected what lay in wait. But in the year since two of them were killed and two others injured, they've been reviewing the incident and sharing their findings to better prepare emergency personnel elsewhere.

The gunman, who shot himself at the scene, was identified as 62-year-old William Spengler Jr. Spengler apparently set fire to his home and a vehicle to lure firefighters, whom he shot from a berm nearby.

STORY: 4 firefighters shot, 2 killed at Webster, N.Y., fire

STORY: N.Y. firefighters describe chaotic Christmas Eve scene

Killed were Webster Police Lt. Mike Chiapperini, 43, a volunteer firefighter and the police department's public information officer, and Tomasz Kaczowka, 19, who worked as a 911 dispatcher for Monroe County. Chiapperini had been named "Firefighter of the Year" two weeks before the incident.

Firefighters Joseph Hofsetter and Theodore Scardino were injured by Spengler's gunfire and an off-duty police officer who was driving by at the time also was injured by flying shrapnel.

A body believed to be that of Spengler's sister, Cheryl Spengler, 67, was found in the rubble of the burned home.

The Webster Police Department drafted an overview of its response for other law enforcement agencies and has shared it at about a dozen presentations across the state and in Maryland, Lt. Dennis Kohlmeier said.

Tactics, training and equipment

Such reviews usually focus on three topics: tactics, training and equipment. In the Webster case, one takeaway was the way Spengler ambushed the firefighters, positioning himself away from the fire itself.

"A lot of times when you see these ambush assaults, they're done in buildings, so a lot of training has gone into building-clearing and entry," Kohlmeier said. "We're starting to see a difference with threats in open areas - a person in a concealed position in a darkened environment, and that makes the tactics you use a little different."

For instance, Kohlmeier said, if perpetrators begin to work more often in the dark, as Spengler did, night-vision goggles become more important for responders. If the perpetrators are well-armed, police need to be as well, and SWAT teams assume a greater role.

"There will be firefighters out there who will read about Webster and incorporate it into their training programs," said Glenn Corbett, a fire response expert and associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "That's an important legacy of those firefighters who were killed that day."

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health also typically conducts reviews of all firefighter deaths and issues findings, but is not doing so in this case after consultation with the local agencies, according to an institute spokeswoman.

Another takeaway is the importance of safety precautions for firefighters and emergency medical service providers, who are not armed and equipped the same way as police.

Greece Police Chief Todd Baxter put together a training document for Greece firefighters after the Webster attack. That document is now being shared across the county by the Monroe County Fire Bureau, and also includes information for emergency medical service providers.

"We're trying to get them to start thinking differently - eying doors and counting cars and all that kind of thing," he said. "What are firefighters taught to do? To react. We're telling them to take a (moment) and note your surroundings."

Kohlmeier described a gruesome game of cat-and-mouse, with criminals and police officers taking cues from attacks elsewhere.

Columbine drove home the importance of school safety procedures. In the Virginia Tech shooting, the suspect barricaded the doors. First responders have learned from both.

"This is sort of a whole new world for (first responders)," Corbett said. "Columbine put an end to standing outside and waiting and negotiating. Now, the thrust of law enforcement folks is to get in there and take this person out as quickly as possible, because they intend to kill themselves anyway."

Possible copycat crimes

Spengler's attack may already have generated copycats. In the last year, there have been several incidents nationally that bear a resemblance to the Webster ambush.

In January, a Louisiana man killed a police officer and wounded two others after torching a mobile home, also killing a man inside it.

In May, Bardstown, Ky., Police Officer Jason Ellis was fatally shot as he removed the debris from a Blue Grass Parkway exit ramp. Police say an unidentified perpetrator targeted his victim by placing debris in the road.

In October, firefighters were prevented from putting out a house fire in Tonawanda, near Buffalo, after a 911 call from a woman who said a man inside was threatening her with a gun. Neighbors reported hearing gunshots from the house, and the man was found dead inside.

In November, an 88-year-old Oregon man killed a reserve police officer before being shot and killed himself.

"If you (only) look at it from the local level, you're never going to see the big picture," Kohlmeier said. "We see the suspects in these matters continue to evolve their tactics. We have to make sure our training is relevant and current so we can address what we're confronted with."

The lessons are harder to process when the victims are friends and colleagues. Kohlmeier delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Michael Chiapperini, his friend and colleague who died that day.

"It's hard to sit down and look at the details of what happened to your co-workers, your friends, the people you work with," he said. "But that information has to be put out there for other agencies to learn from. It's not an easy process, but it's necessary."

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