- Associated Press - Thursday, January 23, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Assaulting a firefighter, paramedic, or social worker could carry a stiffer penalty under a bill presented Thursday to a Nebraska legislative panel.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha said Thursday his proposal would impose the same potential penalties as the crime of assault on a police officer. Lathrop says the bill seeks to protect professionals who are sometimes attacked by people they’re trying to help.

The bill would upgrade the assault charge to a felony, with a mandatory minimum sentence of three years in prison and a maximum of 50 years. It would apply to firefighters, out-of-hospital care workers and employees of state corrections and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

“They are in a vulnerable situation,” Lathrop told the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “They do not expect to be assaulted … and they’re not trained to deal with an assault.”

The measure was partly inspired by a woman who pulled a gun on a firefighter-paramedic in Omaha while riding in the back of an ambulance in July. Prosecutors say the gun went off during a struggle and injured paramedic Brock Borhart. The woman being treated, Justine Dubois, was shot in the leg.

The 24-year-old was later sentenced to 11 years in prison after she pleaded no contest to making terroristic threats, use of a weapon to commit a felony, possession of a gun by a prohibited person and theft.

Borhart expressed support for the bill in a letter to lawmakers, saying the incident changed his life forever and left him with abdominal wounds, shrapnel in his hand and burns on his leg. He said he believes Dubois intended to kill him to avoid going to prison for marijuana possession and stealing a car.

“I shouldn’t have to go on a medical call to help someone and wonder if my patient is carrying a weapon or not,” he said in the letter. “Sadly, though, it is becoming a reality. I’ve woken up more than once in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, awoken by what I thought was the sound of gunshots.”

Assaults on firefighters and emergency responders are fairly common in the profession, with an estimated 750,000 reported nationwide each year, said Dave Engler, president of the Nebraska Professional Fire Fighters Association, a state labor group. More than half of working emergency medical technicians have been assaulted, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

In December, the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommended that fire agencies equip firefighters with bulletproof vests when responding to a dangerous situation. The recommendation came in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., and the Boston Marathon bombings.

Engler said Nebraska’s emergency responders have been held at knifepoint and firefighters assaulted.

“Unlike the average citizen, we’re called to unknown situations,” Engler said. “We have an obligation or a duty to respond. And our personnel do not carry any type of weapons.”

In 2012, Lathrop successfully pushed for a law that added the same possible penalty for assaulting an on-duty doctor or nurse.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha criticized the new bill, saying lawmakers shouldn’t create harsher punishments for attacking people in specific professions. He also said the bill opens the door to other professions, such as lobbyists and attorneys, to ask for special consideration.

“If you (offer first aid) because you have a job, you’re put a notch above ordinary citizens when it comes to the kind of protections you think the state should have,” Chambers said. “This does not actually prevent any of these assaults from occurring.”


The bill is LB752.

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