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N.C. county to spend $925K on body armor for firefighters, paramedics

Recent violent events have pushed Wake County officials to buy additional protection for first responders



By Anna Johnson
The News & Observer

WAKE COUNTY, N.C. — It was summer 2021 at Roberts Park when a 911 call came in saying someone had fallen and needed help.

A Wake County ambulance and EMS crew arrived and began providing medical care for a child patient. Then they heard gunfire.

One paramedic was shot while others took cover behind the ambulance. Authorities at the time said they didn’t think the EMS worker was the shooter’s target.

“As they were treating the patient a shooting broke out,” Emergency Medical Services Director Chris Colangelo said. “And there was a stray bullet that hit one of our paramedics. That was another sentinel event that made us say the threat is increasing in the community.”

Now, two years later, Wake County firefighters and EMS employees will be given county-funded ballistic vests and helmets to increase employee protection and peace of mind.

‘Obviously, we had the Hedingham shooting’

Wake County provides fire protection and firefighter services to the unincorporated parts of the county and the town of Wendell.

Some of the departments have requested ballistic vests over the years, but recent events pushed Wake County toward buying them now.

“Obviously we had the Hedingham shooting,” said Darrell Alford, Wake County’s director of Fire Services and Emergency Management. “And then just the sheer number of active shooter events we were seeing. We thought now was the right time to make this safety change.”

About 70% of calls that firefighters run are first-responder calls like domestic disputes, shootings, car accidents and medical emergencies, Alford said. The new vests and helmets can’t be worn during active firefighting but would be worn if the call mentions a weapon or domestic violence.

“If we’ve got a safety tool out there that’s available, we need to make sure that firefighters are protected,” he said.

Wake County will spend $275,000 to provide four vests and helmets per staff unit, about 242 vests. Wake County EMS will get 450 vests and helmets, one set per staff position, costing about $650,000. The vests should arrive later this year.

Even routine calls not always ‘cut and dry’

Six months after a Wake County paramedic was shot, Wake County EMS responded to a wreck on Interstate 440.

“It was a motor vehicle accident,” Colangelo said. “We wouldn’t have thought that there was a high risk in it. It was on the highway.”

Raleigh police shot and killed Daniel Turcios, a 43-year-old man who was in a car that had flipped on the interstate. He had a knife and did not drop it despite officers’ orders, according to police reports and videos. He was shot five times after police said he waved the knife at them. His death prompted protests and calls for police accountability.

Kevin Masterson, who has been a paramedic for eight years, said the initial call about the accident was the type of “cut and dry” call they’re used to running all the time.

“I would bet my paycheck that nobody that showed up to that scene thought that was going to happen that day,” he said.

Even routine medical calls can turn violent if family members get unhappy or don’t think an ambulance responded quickly enough.

“And they get wound up enough to attack you,” Masterson said. “I know that to most people that sounds kind of silly. But it’s not.”

Body armor recommendation

Ballistic vests for first responders outside of law enforcement are not a new idea. The International Public Safety Association recommended that body armor be provided for non-law enforcement first responders in 2014, Alford said.

Durham County’s EMS staff members have worn ballistic vests since the early 1990s. Medic, Mecklenburg’s EMS agency, doesn’t supply staff with vests but its employees may purchase “pre-approved vests” on their own. Orange County EMS have discussed getting bulletproof vests.

The five-pound vests won’t have to be worn on every call and they’re made to blend in with the current uniforms.

“That changes the environment,” Colangelo said. “We’re here to help people and if it looks like we’re the tactical team coming into your home, especially in different communities and different segments of the community, it can be intimidating. It can definitely start things off on the wrong foot.”

Wake County EMS submitted its budget request for the vests last fall. A week later the Hedingham mass shooting occurred.

“It was a little frustrating that maybe we were a little too slow,” Colangelo said. “But, if nothing else, Hedingham reinforced that we have this need.”

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