Wash. fire department to get ballistic vests, helmets

Two sets will be kept with each medic unit and three sets will be kept with each fire unit

By Stacia Glenn
The News Tribune 

BONNEY LAKE, Wash. — As mass shootings become more common, more fire departments are using body armor so crews can more quickly reach people in dangerous situations.

East Pierce Fire & Rescue is the latest local agency to order ballistic vests to better protect its firefighters and paramedics.

Tacoma Fire has used the vests since the 1990s, and West Pierce Fire & Rescue ordered them in 2013.

“It is an emerging trend,” said Joe Meineke, spokesman for Tacoma Fire.

East Pierce Fire’s board of commissioners last week approved spending $76,000 on 32 sets of ballistic vests and tactical helmets.

Two sets will be kept with each medic unit. Three sets will be kept with each fire unit.

“We’re not trying to jump on a trend or play police officer,” East Pierce Fire Chief Bud Backer said. “This is more about firefighter safety and being able to provide that service in a timely manner for the people that need it.”

The gear is expected to arrive within two months.

Typically, firefighters responding to a scene wait for police to ensure it is safe before they go in to treat and transport patients.

But in an era when school shootings and mass-casualty incidents regularly occur, fire departments are looking for ways to keep their personnel safe while offering faster treatment to patients.

The vests and the equipment that crews carry are inspired by those used by military medics who need to render aid quickly.

Tacoma firefighters bought 10 ballistic vests in the 1990s after gang shootings surged and the city’s crime rate rivaled those of Los Angeles and Oakland.

They’re not used frequently, but they’re an important tool, Meineke said.

In 2013, West Pierce Fire spent $24,600 on six sets of equipment, which includes a ballistic vest, helmet and trauma bag. The gear is kept in the battalion chief’s vehicle so they can be easily deployed.

Firefighters use the vests in training with Lakewood police, Metro SWAT, Clover Park School District and Clover Park Technical College.

Backer said East Pierce firefighters will do multi-agency training with law enforcement as well.

“It’s all about safety for us,” he said.

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