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It's not the welcome firefighters are used to. The senior Vancouver officer deploying teams during the 2011 Stanley Cup riots says firefighters had items thrown at them and one was even punched in the face while trying to do their duties on the chaotic night.

"It was just bizarre," said Wade Pierlot, assistant operations chief and the officer in charge of co-ordinating crews as they dealt with 387 incidents, including fires and medical calls (many people presented themselves to firefighters seeking medical help).

"It's an environment we're not used to," Mr. Pierlot said of the hostility. "Usually people are happy to see us, and we usually tend to always be given the benefit of the doubt."

In one dramatic incident, a fire inspector was punched in the face by a bystander who slipped away into the crowd and was not arrested. Although the officer was not injured, Mr. Pierlot noted, "A punch in the face never feels good." He said the context of the attack was unclear.

On occasion, objects were being thrown at firefighters, he said. Sometimes that was a byproduct of moving into areas where crowds were worked up over something else.

"Thank heaven we're in closed cabs," said Mr. Pierlot, noting that during the 1994 Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver, fire-engine cabs were open so firefighters were vulnerable to thrown debris. "We had a lot more injuries," he recalled. In 2011, a dozen officers suffered minor injuries related to firefighting, such as twisted ankles.

Mr. Pierlot said the fire department had all the required resources, and did all the appropriate planning for a possible riot, but the eventual riots did not entirely surprise him. He writes that prophecy off to being a pessimist.

"Whenever I see large crowds, I think worst case," he said. "Did I think it could happen? Absolutely. I was worried about it in the Olympics and was quite relieved when it didn't happen there."

But he knew it was going to happen in Vancouver when a vehicle was overturned and set on fire at a postal plant across the street from the main branch of the Vancouver library, among thousands of spectators who had been watching the game on giant TV screens. "I figured that was it," he said.