Should firefighters be provided body armor for responses?

Why ballistic protection is now a necessity, plus 5 steps for how departments can add body armor to their equipment cache

By Fire Chief Marc Bashoor

Let’s talk about one of those topics we tend to shy away from – ballistic protection for our responders.

We conducted a survey among the FireRescue1 community, asking whether you believe firefighters should be provided body armor for responses. An astonishing 81 percent of the respondents said yes, firefighters should have body armor for responses.

We have indeed seen all over the country, especially during these protests and riots, firefighters and paramedics placed into harm's way.

But it isn't all about protests and riots. I have my own real-life experience from April 15, 2016, when I was chief in Prince George's County, Maryland. That was the day that John "Skillet" Ulmschneider and the crew he was with went to a home for a check on the welfare call, a normal everyday call for us. Three people would get shot that day, two providers and one family member. That would be Skillet's last call.

We spent a lot of time after that call, deliberate time, thinking about vests and changes in our response patterns, and we did implement things, but vests weren't purchased at the time.

We're beyond that now in the fire service in the United States. We're at a time where firefighters and paramedics need to have some kind of ballistic protection available to them. Do the research and get them in the hands of your firefighters.

Here are five points to consider as you think about whether you're going to do this:

  1. Do your research. There's plenty of it out there. There are lots of folks that have done research and can help you with it.
  2. Look for funding opportunities, grants or other specific earmarked funds.
  3. Have a distribution and maintenance plan.
  4. Have a training plan.
  5. Have a response and use plan.

In Highlands County, Florida, we chose level 3A vests, ones that look similar to our turnout gear. We wanted to draw less attention to the fact that we had those vests. We require them to be checked and for personnel to put them on weekly to make sure that if they do need them that they're ready at any moment's notice.

If you buy these things and put them on a unit and don't ever deploy them from a training and a checking perspective, then it will be a recipe for disaster. Please don't buy them and have them put into a warehouse where somebody has to go get them. That too will be a recipe for disaster.

These things take leadership. There are tough times, tough decisions, tough discussions that have to happen. They're not going to happen on their own.

It can't just be about what you can't afford. Sometimes it has to be about what you can't afford to do without, and in the case of ballistic protection, you can't afford to do without it anymore.  

Next: Check out the FireRescue1 special coverage series "Mass violence: Enhanced training for emerging threats" and visit the FireRescue1 Body Armor resource page to learn more about this enhanced PPE.

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