Attacks prompt bulletproof vests for firefighters in Calif.

The Hemet Fire Department purchased 18 bullet-resistant vests last year in the wake of nine attacks on Hemet police

By John Asbury
The Press Enterprise

HEMET, Calif. — Hemet firefighters will now wear body armor when responding to threatening calls or deadly situations.

The department purchased 18 bullet-resistant vests last year in the wake of nine attacks on Hemet police, Fire Chief Bill Whealan said. Fire officials said although the attacks were targeting the Police Department, booby traps were set to kill first responders.

Hemet firefighters were often the first to respond to the attacks, including the removal of an inactive World War II-era bazooka round and several arsons at police and city facilities.

"Typically when these situations were occurring with explosives or fire, we were the ones responding with police," Whealan said. "They were trying to attack anyone wearing a badge. When these chaotic events ensued, public safety was the target."

The department spent about $600 out of the general fund for each vest, Whealan said.

He said such a large expense was essential to protect firefighters but the cost may draw away from other equipment or training in the future.

Firefighters will not wear the vests to every call, only those involving civil unrest with the potential for a shooting suspect or destructive devices.

Crews have worn the vests on a handful of calls so far this year — such as shots fired reports.

Each vest weighs about 5 pounds.

"It would be too much weight if we had to out vests on every day," Whealan said.

Fire crews will wait for police to first respond and clear a scene before moving in to treat a medical aid call, Whealan said.

Other departments have worn the bullet-resistant vests in the past. Riverside County Cal-Fire has vests assigned to its arson and law enforcement unit, and they're also available for other firefighters as needed, spokeswoman Jody Hagemann said.

The latest risk police and firefighters face is the potential for secondary explosives when responding to a suspicious device. Whealan said the first device may be more of a distraction from another device targeting first responders.

No such devices have been found in Hemet but firefighters are training with vests for the national trend.

"We never know what could be the catalyst for a disturbance in any area," Whealan said. "Just like all other events, our awareness level is heightened. This is just an extra precaution."

Copyright 2011 The Press Enterprise, Inc.
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