Firefighters mull body armor in wake of recent attacks

WASHINGTON — The safety of area fire and EMS workers is a top concern after one firefighter was killed and another was seriously injured in Temple Hills. The two had forced their way into a home Friday after being asked to check on a person inside, who opened fire.

“We just never thought in our time that we’d have to worry about our first responders being targeted, or accidentally shot or attacked,” said Brett Garrett, chief of Green Pond Fire and Rescue/West Alabama Emergency Services, and a member of the National EMS Advisory Council. He said uncertainty about emergency calls has led departments to increasingly consider the use of bulletproof vests.

“More and more systems are issuing body armor to providers. The issue you have is the cost of this,” Garrett said. Also, while newer gear is lighter and less cumbersome, it can still be problematic for emergency workers.

“Is it an issue wearing body armor under turnout gear? Of course,” he said.

Garrett said the use of body armor by non-police emergency workers goes back a couple of decades, but that it was usually used on an “as-needed” basis, in situations known to be especially dangerous.

However, in some areas, the use of body armor at all times has become mandatory. EMS workers in Cleveland, for instance, now must wear bulletproof vests on every call.

“I see things are actually changing now, more cities are getting [the vests],” Cleveland EMS Commissioner Nicole Carlton tells WTOP.

“It’s an investment… you do have to replace them every five years,” she says, adding that several cities have reached out to her for guidance on creating similar policies for mandating the use of vests.

Firefighters in Cleveland also will be getting the vests this year, according to Fire Chief Angelo Calvillo. However, he does not believe it is possible to wear the vests during the course of all firefighting duties.

“The physical work and strain – it would just compound that,” Calvillo says, “For me, in my experience, it would be a difficult task.”

In Prince George’s County, certain medics who work with the police SWAT team are given body armor, according to Fire/EMS spokesman Mark Brady. He said the issue of equipping more of the county’s emergency workers with vests has been the subject of discussion for years, and that the recent tragedy might provide motivation for the department to take action.

Representatives for fire and EMS departments in D.C., Fairfax County and Montgomery County also say that body armor is not a standard-issue item to their emergency workers. A D.C. Fire and EMS spokesman said firefighters and EMS workers are strongly encouraged to involve police if they feel they may be in danger.

Nationally, agencies have been pushed to offer their workers more protection. A 2013 report from the Federal Interagency Committee on EMS echoed earlier calls to provide bulletproof vests to EMS personnel.

In 2014, the Federal Emergency Management Agency encouraged states to use federal grant money to purchase body armor for fire and EMS personnel who may respond to active shooter situations and mass casualty incidents.

A 2015 Department of Homeland Security report encouraged the “incorporation of ballistic vests … into the EMS and fire professions, when active shooter threats and situations warrant.”

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