Body armor opinions: FR1 community weighs use of ballistic protection

As mass violence incidents grow in scale and frequency, firefighters face difficult questions related to protection efforts


It’s been over 20 years since the horrific Columbine High School shooting – a defining moment, as it was, at the time, the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. And the tragedies have only escalated since then.

In the past two decades, there have been approximately 300 school shootings in the United States, sparking a reevaluation of the role of fire and EMS personnel at such events. Agencies have developed task forces, expanded training evolutions and evaluated new equipment in an effort to deal with this growing threat.

What’s more, mass violence has taken other forms, with individuals using fire as a weapon and, in more recent months, rioters attacking public safety personnel during civil unrest.

As the fire service shifts to a more all-hazards response model, firefighters find themselves facing difficult questions related to how to best protect themselves and their members from such acts of violence – and a big focus of such questions is the use of body armor on calls.

We asked the FireRescue1 community several questions to get a better understand of current preparation levels and opinions about body armor use on responses. Here’s how you responded.

Mass violence training

Nearly three-quarters of respondents indicated not feeling properly trained to respond to mass violence incidents – a staggering statistic when you consider the growing number of mass violence events, particularly active shooter incidents, in recent years.

Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder underscored that a firefighter’s job is to take care of the public – and sometimes we must do so at great risk. “And that's OK, when we need to risk ourselves (or when the IC risks their troops) to take care of people; that's what we all signed up for,” he said. “People expect us to come get them when they have no other options.”

Goldfeder added: “Members must understand what their role is and is not, including very clearly what the role of your department is (determined by policy) and what it is not – and then prepare for that through policy review, interagency training and related drills. Quite frankly, in some of these scenarios, training firefighters what not to do (vs. what to do) may be the order of the day. We have an obligation to protect our fire and EMS personnel so that when ‘the coast is clear’ and we can operate on a ‘fair’ playing field (no snipers, terrorists, things like that), we can do what we do best – taking care of people having a very bad day.” 

Fire service members at all levels should be considering how to remedy this – immediately – through increased training and education.

  • Fire chiefs: Have you coordinated with local public safety and government agencies about response efforts? What types of joint training efforts can you initiate to ensure a coordinated response that will not overwhelm resources?
  • Company officers: Develop training opportunities at the crew level – articles, simulations, anything that will get your firefighters prepared to respond to these high-intensity events.
  • Firefighters: Pitch training ideas to your company officer. Even if they are not responsive to your suggestions, keep pushing. You may need to work independently to learn as much as you can about these incidents and the unique role of the fire department.

Body armor provisions

As Fire Chief Marc Bashoor discussed in a recent video, an astonishing 81% of respondents said they believe firefighters should be provided body armor for responses. Considering the recent attacks on firefighters during social unrest, plus a long history of encounters with violent patients, it is no surprise that more and more firefighters want this type of protection – and Bashoor agrees.

“We’re at a time when firefighters and paramedics need to have some kind of ballistic protection available to them,” he says. “Whether they’re fitted for it, whether you provide them to be placed on paramedic units, placed on fire engines, placed in supervisors’ vehicles, whatever you do, you need to do some deliberate thinking on it. Do the research and get them in the hands of your firefighters.”

Current body armor provisions

Not surprising considering how many members feel the need for body armor, our next poll shows that 67% of respondents are not currently provided body armor; however, 4% indicate that their departments are currently researching or purchasing such protection.

Body armor on every response

Lastly, we asked about the frequency of wear. We all know that really any incident has the potential to turn violent, from a patient who is confused about what is happening and lashing out to a “bread-and-butter” house fire call that ends up being arson, with fire is being used as a weapon against first responders, to the now all-too-familiar active shooter incidents at schools, places of business and even roadways.

With the potential for violence all around first responders, does this mean they should wear body armor on every response? Nearly three-quarters said no, wear based on scene size-up instead.

Chief Bashoor notes that the additional weight, discomfort, and heat can certainly hasten fatigue and exhaustion in firefighters wearing an additional 80 pounds of protective gear over that which a law enforcement officer wears.

“The choice to wear or not, if not driven by organizational policy, will be a very personal decision firefighters need to make,” he adds. “Recognizing that the safety is in the vest on your chest and not in your trunk, for the time being, I will advocate for constant training, awareness and situational-based wearing for firefighters.

[Watch next: Should firefighters be provided body armor for responses?]

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