Calif. firefighters add bulletproof vests to gear

The vests are an added measure of safety for firefighters who are asked to put themselves in harm's way

San Francisco Chronicle

FAIRFIELD, Calif. — In an unusual but not unprecedented move, Fairfield firefighters will soon wear bullet-resistant vests during some critical incidents, a department spokesman said Thursday.

Within the next several weeks, firefighters will be able to wear the vests if they respond to shootings, stabbings or other emergencies in which they are told by police to first “stage,” or park in a safe spot, before moving in.

The vests, typically worn by police officers, are an added measure of safety for firefighters who are asked to put themselves in harm’s way, said Fairfield Battalion Chief Matt Luckenbach.

Luckenbach said more police and fire departments have adopted procedures in which they rush in to help the wounded in dangerous situations rather than delay a response until a SWAT team arrives.

“With the rise in violent events across the nation and mass casualties and active-shooter situations, our role has changed quite a bit,” Luckenbach said.

In dealing with what are described as hot, warm and cold zones, “we’re finding that (paramedics) and fire are responding to warm zones a lot more frequently. This is an attempt to be really progressive and protect our people.”

Firefighters won’t automatically put on the vests for all calls, such as responding to fires or medical emergencies. But they will don them in any unsafe situation, including incidents in which it isn’t prudent to wait for police officers to clear an area of any dangers.

The city bought about three dozen vests at a cost of $32,000 earlier this year, Luckenbach said.

He noted that most big-city fire departments aren’t buying the vests, possibly because it’s cost prohibitive due to their sizes. Los Angeles firefighters, however, have similar vests.

Capt. Brad McGibben of the San Jose Fire Department said his firefighters typically don’t move in until cleared to do so by police.

“In order for Fire Department personnel to handle our side of the emergency, we need the Police Department to assure that the scene is secure,” McGibben said.

Fairfield isn’t the first city in the Bay Area to outfit firefighters with the protective gear. Agencies like the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety have issued vests for years because members of the agency are cross-trained as both police officers and firefighters, said Capt. Jeff Plecque.

Fire crews in Vallejo have had them for at least 10 years, said Bill Tweedy, a retired firefighter with the department.

“We had standard operating procedures when they were to be used,” Tweedy said.

“You got a call of a domestic violence at a home where somebody’s been injured, and it’s unknown of there’s any weapons, and a lot of times the Fire Department would get there and be by themselves.

“It provides a safety barrier that if something happened and went south, it would protect firefighters from injury.”

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