A case for giving firefighters, medics body armor

Given the street-level dangers and improved technology, ballistic vests should be an option to all firefighters and medics

By Joshua Nash

Body armor is not usually seen as important equipment for firefighters and medics. For many, body armor is reserved for the police or the military, and for those who are likely to be attacked and shot.

However, news reports have shown us that firefighters and medics are likely to be attacked, even shot. Wherever attacks and injuries are likely to occur, body armor should be used.

This is especially true for firefighters. And protective clothing has become increasingly compatible with the environments they work in.

Some argue that, as a method of keeping them safe, firefighters should be trained to deal with hostile situations. These methods range from mediation and negotiation tactics to self-defence training.

Similarly, some suggest that firefighters be escorted to particularly dangerous locations by police, or even that the police officers attend scenes first to declare it safe for firefighters.

While this idea would undoubtedly help keep firefighters safer, it would be an incredible drain on time and resources, and could cost the lives of innocent people. It is important that members of the fire service attend situations as quickly as possible, and it is unreasonable to expect them to wait for police.

A sensible option
Giving firefighters additional training is a good idea, and some would argue that providing these additional skills has no downside. However, these may not always be enough to diffuse a hostile situation, and the priority first and foremost should be the firefighters' safety.

Where weapons are concerned, no amount of mediation or negotiation may help. The only sensible option to keep individuals safe is to provide them with body armor.

This does not mean that it should be mandatory. However, giving them the option is important in keeping them safe.

One of the major barriers to body armor for many is the extra bulk that it brings to an already cumbersome protective ensemble. While modern Kevlar bulletproof vests are light and thin, there is some concern that wearing a vest will hinder firefighters.

The reality is that the majority of armor is comfortable to wear for extended periods and does not hinder movement.

Grading scale
Bulletproof vests are graded by the National Institute of Justice, the world leader in ballistics testing for body armor. Armor at Levels I through IIIa is known as soft armor, and is very lightweight.

These vests are available in a covert style, which allows them to be worn underneath a uniform. This means that a firefighter can wear body armor underneath their protective turnout gear and be protected.

These soft armors protect against the vast majority of handgun ammunition including 9 mm and .44 Magnum rounds. Of course, different protection levels protect against different types of ammunition.

But handgun ammunition is ubiquitous as handguns are the most common weapons used in crime in the U.S, according to the Center for Disease Control. Therefore, outfitting firefighters and medics with bulletproof vests at Level IIa to IIIa would give them the minimum protection they require.

On the other hand, there are myriad weapons available to an attacker that can prove deadly. And while ballistic protection is still necessary for firefighters and medics, it may not be enough.

For example, weapons like knives and needles are far more accessible than firearms, and can be just as deadly. Even high-powered weaponry is something must be considered, as the West Webster, N.Y. incident proved.

All-hazard response
It is not possible to know what form an attack will take, but firefighters have always been called to dangerous situations and their protection needs to reflect this.

Using hard armor made of ceramics or polyethylene may be necessary if there is a threat of rifle rounds and armor-piercing ammunition. However, these armors are naturally very heavy and bulky. It would be impractical for firefighters to wear a Level III or IV hard bulletproof vest in addition to their turnout gear, but something tactical medics should consider.

The threat of knives and needles can more easily be countered. While a bulletproof vest will not protect against knives or needles, stab- and spike-proof vests are incredibly thin and light and can be worn underneath turnout gear. These vests are usually made with Kevlar, thereby offering ballistic protection in addition to edged and spiked protection.

The additional materials they use will also be lightweight and flexible, meaning it will not hinder movement. Some manufacturers offer vests that incorporate temperature-regulating technologies that can help move moisture away from the body.

Part of the problem of attacks on firefighters is the increasingly wide range of scenarios they are called to. Body armor would provide protection even in these all-hazard situations, as bulletproof vests can mitigate the injuries caused by blunt trauma.

There is even testing and standardization available for armor that can protect against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats. This seemingly unlikely piece of protection has a place in fire and EMS departments.

About the author

Joshua Nash works for SafeGuard Armor. He has written a number of articles on a range of topics, and is particularly interested in how the research and development of ballistic materials can benefit other industries.

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