Fla. firefighters, paramedics push for body armor

Citing dangers faced by paramedics at the Pulse nightclub shooting, fire officials have pushed for protective gear, such as armored helmets

By Stephen Hudak
The Orlando Sentinel

ORANGO COUNTY, Fla. — Body armor will soon become standard gear for Orange County firefighters and paramedics responding to violent crime scenes.

Citing dangers faced by paramedics at the Pulse nightclub shooting, Orange County Fire Chief Otto Drozd III said he will push for protective gear for rescue personnel, with a bill estimated at $320,000.

He said the county has applied for federal, state and local grants to defray the costs.

"But if we don't get even one grant, we're still going to do it," said Drozd, a 30-year firefighting veteran and Orange County's chief since 2012. "We're going to find the money."

The Orlando Fire Department also hopes to buy more armored helmets and ballistic vests for its 520 firefighters and paramedics, spokeswoman Ashley Papagni said.

"They encounter more violent scenes now, it's just the way of the world," she said.

Both the county and the city departments have some bulletproof helmets and vests to protect against small-arms fire, but first-responders sometimes must wait for gear to arrive.

Drozd said firefighters take the gear with them on calls if they know they might need it and it's available. He would prefer to equip each of the county's 85 fire/rescue units with the gear.

Since the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, paramedics have struggled with how close they should tread into a shooting scene when wounded victims need help.

Papagni said emergency responders have to protect themselves to help others.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security have issued advisories and guidelines urging fire departments across the U.S. to outfit first-responders with body armor and develop plans for handling incidents like the Pulse shooting.

FEMA has created a grant program to help local agencies acquire protective gear.

Nearly 500 people have been killed in mass shootings since Columbine, including 49 shot to death June 12 at Pulse. Dozens more were wounded at the Orlando club.

The need to provide firefighters with extra protection became clear during the Pulse attack when paramedics arrived to help wounded victims as the gunman kept shooting.

Orange County dispatched 41 firefighters and paramedics to Pulse during the ordeal.

Some paramedics who arrived at Pulse without bulletproof vests were forced to treat victims at a bagel store across the street and in other areas away from immediate danger.

Both county and Orlando firefighters and paramedics continue to take part in training exercises to sharpen their response in incidents with active shooters and mass casualties, staging some at shopping malls and schools.

When Drozd began his firefighting career in 1986, not all firefighters wore protective goggles, gloves or breathing apparatus at a fire scene. He said body armor will soon be common, too.

"We're adapting to what we're being confronted with," he said.

Copyright 2016 The Orlando Sentinel

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