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Orlando firefighters, paramedics get ballistic vests, helmets

The gear, which cost the city $88,000, is now distributed throughout all of the department’s emergency vehicles

By Caitlin Doornbos
Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — All Orlando Fire Department emergency vehicles are now equipped with bulletproof vests and helmets specially designed for firefighters and medics responding to mass-casualty incidents and active violent crime scenes, and Orange County Fire Rescue is planning to do the same.

After last year’s June 12 Pulse shooting that killed 49 and injured more than 63, Orlando-area officials and first responders gathered to brainstorm how to best address what OFD Chief Roderick S. Williams calls a “changing dynamic.”

“Orlando is not a fluke,” Williams said. “[Mass shootings are] a new norm of today’s society.”

It cost the city about $88,000 to buy 150 vests at $586 each. Those vests, as well as ballistics helmets, are now distributed throughout all of the department’s emergency vehicles — meaning not every firefighter has his or her own vest, but each will have one available to use while on shift.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said the decision to purchase the extra vests kept in line with the city’s “desire to equip our public-safety personnel with the best tools, technology and training.”

“We have learned over the last decade that there are a number of times that firefighters are going to be responding in active-shooter situations and this is an added layer of protection for them should they come in the line of fire,” Dyer said.

Regarding the Pulse shooting, Dyer said “having these vests back then would have been very helpful.”

The city is not alone in offering extra protection for its first responders. Orange County Fire Rescue has an order placed for 350 ballistics vests and helmets — one for each person on shift at any given time. The first delivery of the gear is expected in the next two weeks, OCFR spokeswoman Kat Kennedy said.

The county spent $325,000 for 334 of the vests and helmets, Kennedy said. The other 16 were paid for with a $16,250 grant from the Office of the Medical Director.

Not only do the vests protect medics from gunfire, they also act as tool belts, holding lifesaving medical equipment such as hemorrhage-control bandages, medical tape and QuickClot medicine to stop bleeding, Assistant Chief Hezedean Smith said.

“Stopping the bleeding is one of our concerns as far as saving lives,” Smith said. “We have bandages … [and] tourniquets we can apply and immediately stop the life-threatening injury that we have as a result of a penetrating injury.”

Williams said having the equipment readily available on the 7-pound vests lets paramedics be more mobile when responding to a mass-casualty incident. Instead of having to run back to an ambulance to get the supplies, they already will be at hand.

Williams said the vests are part of a new military-style approach being taught in emergency casualty care. The vests and the equipment they carry are inspired by those used by military medics who need to render fast aid.

“Everything is accessible, so when we go to the scene we can get to work,” Williams said.

Ballistics vests aren’t entirely new to the fire departments. Both the OFD and Fire Rescue have had a small number of bulletproof vests available on specialty trucks that could be called to the scene when necessary. Now, however, OFD will have them on hand at every scene.

Fire Rescue currently has a total of 24 vests split up among six response units until the order for the additional vests come in, Kennedy said.

Firefighters and paramedics in both departments have gone through training to learn how to use the vests. They plan to use the vests during multi-agency training with law enforcement, Williams said.

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