Mass. first responders equipped with ballistic vests, helmets

The ballistic gear allows firefighters and paramedics into the "warm zone" alongside law enforcement to quickly provide life-saving first aid

By Jonathan Phelps
Metrowest Daily News

HOPKINTON, Mass. — When Hopkinton paramedics arrived at the scene of a man barricaded in a small outbuilding with a sawed-off shotgun in December, the crew stood by wearing new gear: bulletproof vests and helmets.

While the nearly two-hour standoff ended peacefully, such equipment is becoming more common for firefighters and EMTs as they are increasingly thrown in the middle of hostile situations, including active shooter and mass casualty incidents.

During such responses, a perimeter is set up with three zones -- cold, warm and hot. The "cold zone" is a secure staging area for responders and the "hot zone" is where police work to contain the threat.

The ballistics gear allows firefighters/paramedics into the "warm zone" alongside law enforcement to quickly provide life-saving first aid to victims such as trauma bandages and tourniquets. The warm zone is defined as an area with no direct threat, but a potential for harm still exists.

"Before, paramedics would wait until the scene is secure or getting an 'all clear' from police," said Hopkinton Fire Chief Steve Slaman.

The goal is to stop patients from bleeding to death until more advanced care can be provided or the person can be moved to a secure area, he said.

The tactics require coordinated efforts between law enforcement and emergency medical services.

Hopkinton Police Lt. Joe Bennett said medics can also provide care if an officer is injured trying to locate and isolate the suspect(s).

"They are dynamically moving along with us," he said.

During an armed standoff in Chelsea last year, firefighters used similar bulletproof vests to extinguish a blaze as a man fired shots at first responders.

There are also targeted situations that are harder for first responders to predict.

Last month, a 77-year-old man shot at firefighters who responded to a report of an explosion at a retirement home in Long Beach, California, killing a veteran fire captain. Investigators believe the man intentionally set a fire in the building to lure firefighters onto the property.

Hopkinton places two vests and two helmets in each of the town's ambulances, but not on firetrucks.

In Natick, about 20 firefighters are on the town's rescue task force and each has protective gear. The bulletproof vests read, "Natick Fire." The team is also equipped with a kit of medical supplies and a portable stretcher.

"Unfortunately, it is the wave of the future," said Natick Fire Chief Michael Lentini. "We are way ahead of the curve. Luckily, we haven't had to use it yet."

Most active shooter or hostile incidents happen in 10 to 15 minutes, and often victims are left behind without care, he said.

"The thought was to get people in there as soon as possible," Lentini said. "The goal is to save lives."

Since the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, fire departments have evolved their training and response protocols to work alongside police and other law enforcement agencies, said state Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey.

"Seeing some of the active shooter and hostile events that have taken place around the world, I think we take some of the lessons that are learned through each of those incidents and apply them in different ways," he said.

The state does not keep track of how many fire departments use ballistics gear, because those decisions are made on a local and regional level.

Fire District 14, which includes departments in Southern Middlesex County, is developing a regional set of policies and procedures for how police and fire departments can work together in mutual aid situations.

The tactics have been a priority nationwide for the past two or three years, Slaman said.

"It doesn't work unless it's a joint effort," he said.

Copyright 2018 Metrowest Daily News

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