Wis. firefighters to begin wearing body armor

The new gear will be required for all Madison Fire Department personnel responding with police to provide medical help on calls posing a higher risk for gunfire


The Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. — Starting next week, all Madison firefighters on every shift will have bulletproof vests assigned to them for added protection on any calls posing a higher risk for gunfire.

The new gear — totaling 90 vests, weighing 20 pounds a piece and lined with heavy ceramic plates to stop rounds from handguns to high-powered rifles — will be required for all Madison Fire Department personnel responding with police to provide medical help where bullets are or might be flying.

It’s part of the new reality of rendering aid in a society increasingly marred by mass shootings, often defined as four or more killings or attempted killings in one incident.

“This is for that bigger level — people running around shooting, victims on the ground bleeding,” said Che Stedman, the fire department’s chief of medical affairs. “That’s obviously become more prevalent in this country.”

And it reflects a shift in first-responder policy that puts saving the lives of injured people ahead of guaranteed safety for the emergency personnel who try to do it.

What happened at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 — the incident often cited as the beginning of the modern era of mass shootings — when emergency personnel waited outside for a SWAT team to arrive while 13 people inside died and the two killers committed suicide — is seen as unacceptable today, Stedman said.

“The big thought process now is we can’t wait for the police department to clear every single room of every building to make sure there’s absolutely no threat anymore, while people are bleeding for 30 or 40 minutes,” Stedman said. “We need to come sooner.”

Madison firefighters already have trained with area police agencies using the more aggressive protocol, Stedman said, and in December they responded that way — before they had the vests — to the shooting inside East Towne Mall that injured a 19-year-old Madison man.

Last year, Dane County Emergency Management updated its countywide best practices to reflect the new protocols, calling for first responders to move with police guards to treat injured people before a scene is fully secured. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency in late 2013 recommended all firefighters wear bulletproof vests.

Medical calls now make up 85 percent of the Madison Fire Department’s work, Stedman said. All firefighters are qualified as emergency medical technicians, or EMTs, while some get advanced training to be paramedics.

The vests, also known as body armor, will be optional for EMTs and paramedics on more routine medical calls, which make up the vast majority. But even those sometimes can be dicey, such as volatile domestic violence scenarios, especially involving weapons, and unexpected threats.

A volunteer firefighter in Arizona, for example, was fatally shot Jan. 22 on an emergency medical call to help a man having a seizure. The man, while coming out of the seizure, apparently mistook the firefighter for a home intruder, according to media accounts of the incident.

“It’s an added piece of protection,” Madison firefighter/EMT Austen Fuchs said.

Designed to be worn over a shirt or jacket, each vest is adjustable and has no side panels, for some loss of protection but added flexibility. They won’t be worn for fighting fires, as personnel already wear heavy gear.

On any given shift, a total of 82 vests will be put on department rigs: two per ambulance, four per ladder truck and four per engine truck. That’s enough to cover every paramedic and EMT working across the department’s 13 stations citywide, with a few spares.

The fire department purchased the vests from an Arizona company for $15,000, Stedman said. Fire departments in Wisconsin already using bulletproof vests include Milwaukee and, most recently, Fond du Lac.

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