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Ballistic vests part of the uniform for more firefighters

September 19, 2018

DALLAS (AP) — Houston officials will spend up to $1.4 million to purchase ballistic vests for firefighters as they join a growing number of cities buying the vests to better protect firefighters who are more often encountering active-shooter or other deadly situations.

Falling through a collapsing roof or starving for oxygen in rooms filled with smoke have long been among the occupational hazards for firefighters, said Houston fire Chief Sam Pena, but his department “must now also consider protection against violent acts.”

Houston joins an expanding list of fire departments — Boston, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh among them — that have purchased the vests.

“It is a new reality that is contrary to how we’ve always viewed this honorable profession, but protective clothing must be compatible with the environment we work in,” Pena, who oversees some 4,000 firefighters, said in a statement Wednesday. “This is the next progression of tools of the trade.”

Pena wasn’t available for further comment. Sheldra Brigham, spokeswoman for the Houston Fire Department, said the city council allocated $1 million for the vests and a federal grant will cover the rest of the cost. Firefighters will wear the vests during calls that have the potential for danger, such as domestic violence incidents and shootings.

One of the more notorious national cases highlighting the dangers fire crews face was the killing of two firefighters who were shot on Christmas Eve 2012 by a man who lured them to his house outside Rochester, New York, by setting ablaze his and other nearby homes. The 62-year-old gunman took his own life.

John Montes, an emergency services specialist with the National Fire Protection Association, said the growing use of the vests comes as firefighters and paramedics in many cases no longer wait for police to defuse a deadly situation before entering the scene. This allows them to reduce the number of victims accessible to an assailant and also provide medical care sooner, he said.

“Our first responders are going to these scenes and are right in the thick of it,” Montes said.

His association establishes protocols for when vests should be worn, including standards introduced in May for active-shooter calls.

From 2000 to 2017, there were 250 active-shooter incidents in the U.S., Montes said, noting that the FBI defines them as shootings in which at least four people are killed, not including the attacker. There were 50 such incidents in 2016 and 2017 alone.

He said first responders now are differentiating between “hot” and “warm” zones, meaning those scenes where an active shooter may still be targeting people as opposed to ones where gunfire has stopped but the shooter is not in custody.

Jon Swanson is the executive director of Metropolitan EMS in Little Rock, Arkansas. His agency obtained vests two years ago for the 290 personnel who respond to calls. The vests were purchased in the months after a volunteer firefighter was fatally shot by a person for whom the firefighter was called to help provide medical care.

The safety of emergency medical technicians “became much more of a concern for all of us,” Swanson said, explaining that the vests are required to be worn for all calls rather than just for ones where a threat is apparent.

“The real story is how do we reach and treat people quicker and sooner in all of our circumstances,” he said. “Ballistic vests are part of this bigger matrix.”

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