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Why fire and EMS agencies should invest in body armor – and how to afford it

The role of fire and EMS personnel is changing and this extra layer of protection can save lives


Body armor for firefighters and medics is becoming a necessity. BulletSafe makes it affordable.


Sponsored by BulletSafe

By Kenny Sokan for FireRescue1 BrandFocus

When people hear the word firefighter, most think of just that — people who fight fires. While the job description may have been that simple in the profession’s early beginnings, since then, fire departments have taken on a wide variety of duties, including emergency medical services. All firefighters have some level of emergency medical care training, and many fire departments have in-house EMS divisions. Firefighters, paramedics and EMTs work closely with the police, and can and have been called to incidents involving shootings, stabbings and other violent crimes where suspects or patients may still be an active threat. Though violence against fire and EMS responders may be rare, they do happen.

  • In 2008, a 22-year-old rookie firefighter responding to a vehicle fire in Maplewood, MO was shot and killed. Two police officers were also wounded.
  • In 2012 two volunteer firefighters were shot and killed, and another two injured, in a planned ambush involving an intentional fire in Webster, NY.
  • In May 2019, a Wisconsin firefighter was shot and killed while responding to a medical call. A police officer and bystander also suffered gunshot wounds.
  • On June 9, 2020 in Caldwell County, TX, an 18-year-old volunteer firefighter, and his 16-year-old cousin who was with him at the time, were shot and killed while responding to reports of smoke.

According to the International Public Safety Association (IPSA) 2017 Line Of Duty Death (LODD) Report, the number of non-law enforcement first responders who are assaulted with guns or by stabbing is increasing. To help reduce gun-related LODD, the IPSA recommenced body armor be provided to non-law enforcement first responders. FEMA made the same recommendation in 2014.

Since the provision of body armor is not mandatory, fire and EMS departments (and sometimes responders) are often left footing the bill for this equipment – and it can be a very steep one. A single ballistic vest can cost anywhere from several hundred to over a thousand dollars. But thanks to BulletSafe, fire departments and EMS agencies or individuals looking to purchase protective vests independent of funding can do so at a price that won’t break the bank.

Founded in 2013, BulletSafe manufactures Level IIIA ballistic vests, designed to stop most handgun rounds up to a .44 magnum, available for just $299.

How BulletSafe Bulletproof Vests were born

Back in the 1990s, BulletSafe founder Tom Nardone was working as a military equipment test engineer. While working for a defense helicopter company, Nardone had his first interaction with Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE or PE) – tough plastic with high abrasion and wear resistance. It had been used to create a bullet-resistant fuel tank Nardone was assigned to test.

At the time, Kevlar was the industry favorite for ballistic products, but upon testing it, Nardone found that the PE fuel tank liner performed just as well as the Kevlar. This was a significant discovery, considering that PE costs 70% less than Kevlar.

This discovery saved the company a lot of money, and Nardone was curious to see if PE would make its way into protective vest manufacturing – with PE, he thought, the cost could go down significantly. Nearly 20 years later, Nardone walked into a store that sold ballistic vests. The vests cost the same as they did in the 1990s, but now they were made of PE. How this could be?

How is BulletSafe able to provide quality bulletproof vests for a fraction of the cost?

Aside from material sources, a lot of factors go into body armor pricing, including design and fit, protection level, durability and production costs. Nardone found that custom cut and fitting, lack of volume production and poorly sourced materials, as well as the particular sales process for protective vests and federal subsidies for police departments’ vests, all contribute to the high cost of ballistic vests.

Determined to find a way to make vests more affordable, Nardone and his wife, a marketing expert, interviewed 100 security guards to find out what price they could afford. Their answer? $299, matching what Nardone had imagined all those years ago. With that, in 2013, Nardone started BulletSafe, producing Level IIIA vests made from PE that pass the NIJ standard and sell for just $299 apiece. BulletSafe has been able to maintain this price for seven years.

Although many agencies prefer custom-fitted vests in multiple colors, the simple design of the black BulletSafe vests gets the job done while saving buyers hundreds. The vests are created using a standardized height and weight chart, with seven sizes available – from XS to 4XL – and large hook-and-loop areas to help achieve the desired shape and fit of each individual.

How BulletSafe offers protection from handguns and more

In addition to ballistic protection, BulletSafe vests also offer stab and slash protection from knives, so the company classifies them as Level IIIA+. While this is not an official NIJ classification, some manufacturers use it to describe protective vests that offer multi-threat protection. Nardone handles the testing and certification of BulletSafes vests, and the vests are warrantied to maintain ballistic performance for five years.

For added protection, BulletSafe also manufactures removable ballistic plates. When inserted into the vest carrier, they upgrade the BulletSafe vest to Level IV, protecting individuals from rifle rounds up to a .30-06. Each plate is 11 7/8 inches tall, 10 inches across and 0.80 inches in depth. The plates are curved for a close fit to the body and come with a nylon cover to protect from sun damage and other typical wear and tear.

BulletSafe ships to every state except Connecticut, where body armor must be purchased through face-to-face sales. Interested buyers there can use the companys Find A Dealer” page.

While the simple design of BulletSafe Bulletproof Vests may not have all the bells and whistles of those with a custom shape and fit, they check off every box where it matters most – keeping the bodies that wear them safe.

BulletSafe offers a variety of ballistic protection items, including caps and bandanas. Get more information at

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