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Do Fire and EMS Personnel Need Body Armor?

EMS Emergency Medical Services, badges article logo labelFire Department chiclet article type logo label

   by Robert Avsec

Probably one of the hottest topics in the fire and EMS world today is departments large and small scrambling to locate funding to purchase personnel body armor, along with all the other equipment, training, and personnel costs associated with providing services to their communities. Personally, I believe the answer to the title question is no. I also believe the answer is yes. And I believe that both of my answers are correct because every department and every community is different. Unfortunately, we have a long history in fire service and EMS of playing “follow the leader;” that is, the larger organizations within those disciplines adopt a new procedure or start using a new piece of equipment or start training on a particular subject, and the next thing you know other departments are doing the same thing. It doesn’t matter if it (the procedure, equipment, or training) is pertinent in their locality or their operating situation. It’s what’s hot!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge proponent for firefighter and EMS provider safety. Among the many articles I’ve written on the subject, I think you might find this one, Improving EMS Scene Safety, to be pertinent to this discussion. Especially since it looks at scene safety from the staffing and scene management perspective, a perspective not often taken in the discussion of improving working conditions for EMS providers. You think your department needs body armor The key word in the subtitle is “need.” Has your department completed a threat analysis regarding the potential risk to its personnel from handguns and knives? Bear in mind that body armor is only protective from rifle fire if it has additional ceramic plates inserted into it; and that adds additional bulk and weight to the body armor. Your local law enforcement agency is one resource that you need for such a threat analysis. They should have already done a similar threat analysis for their personnel as part of their efforts to improve safety for their officers. The information contained in their threat analysis should prove pertinent to your fire or EMS agency as well. Then, there’s the past experiences of your personnel. Conduct a survey with your department’s personnel to find out how often they are encountering armed individuals during their duties. That survey should help you get an idea of the level of threat that they are exposed to daily.

The information you accumulate from both of those sources should provide you with the necessary information to make a more informed decision regarding the purchase of body armor for your people. Identify your personnel on scene more effectively Besides the fact that they arrived on an ambulance or fire truck, what identifies your personnel as firefighters or EMS providers and not members of law enforcement? How closely do their uniforms resemble those of your local law enforcement agency? Do your personnel still wear badges as part of their uniform? Keep in mind that everyone on the scene of an emergency event is operating under the influence. Civilians and public safety personnel alike are operating under the influence of stress. So, it’s an environment “ripe” for mistaken identity.

Ever notice how much easier it is to identify the medical personnel in photographs and video recordings of emergency events outside of the U.S.? Whether it’s a cab bombing in Israel or a multiple vehicle crash on a German autobahn or a mass shooting in Greece, I frequently recognize the medical providers because they’re wearing clothing or vests with a very large red cross.Yeah, that red cross is universally worn to help identify the wearer as one of “the good guys.” (And certainly, the good work done by members of the International Red Cross at disasters world-wide is a big part of that recognition). So, if you make the decision to purchase body armor for your fire or EMS personnel, specify brightly colored ensembles—not the standard black or dark blue favored by law enforcement agencies—that display a prominent red cross. (Sure, the “Star of Life” is the symbol for EMS in the U.S., but does it have the same international “brand recognition” as the red cross?). If you feel that your threat analysis doesn’t justify the purchase of body armor, then consider purchasing brightly colored vests displaying the red cross. Either way, clearly identifying your personnel as medical personnel can go a long way towards keeping them from being the target of firearm or knife violence. Train personnel to avoid violent encounters!

Whether they are wearing body armor or not, firefighters and EMS providers are not immune to the violence that exists in our society today. Violence arises from seemingly innocuous situations (from our perspective as public safety personnel):for instance, a medical emergency or motor vehicle crash. However, with the prevalence of firearms in our society combined with a chaotic situation that has people operating under the effects of stress, these situations can turn a seemingly simple experience into a more violent one in a “New York Minute.” Firefighters and EMS personnel must have initial and continuing training and education on situational awareness and conflict de-escalation techniques. Situational awareness training is necessary because most firefighters and EMS personnel are action-oriented people who:

   - See what needs to be done;
   - Know how to do what needs to be done; and,
   - Want to get on with doing what needs to be done.

These characteristics make it easy for personnel to develop “tunnel vision” as they focus on the problem at hand. Subsequently, they miss verbal and non-verbal cues from patients, family members, or the public that might indicate that the on-scene “climate” is becoming ripe for violent behavior. Training and education on de-escalation strategies and techniques are necessary to complement those situational awareness skills. Recognizing that a situation is escalating in the “wrong direction” is one thing, knowing what to do when it occurs is another thing. So, back to the original question once again. Should your department purchase body armor for its personnel? I trust that this article has given you some things to think about before making a final and potentially costly decision.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec

Battalion Chief (Ret) Robert P. Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield (VA) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. His career as a fire officer is rather unique in that he spent a cumulative total of 9+ years in staff officer positions as: Director of EMS Division, Co-Manager of Emergency Communications Center (911), and Director of Training & Safety Division. Chief Avsec also served multiple tours of duty in the department's Emergency Operations Division.

Chief Avsec holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Fire and Safety Engineering Technology from the University of Cincinnati and a Master's degree in Executive Fire Service Leadership from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, AZ. He also is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. His post-retirement career has included consulting work with a private sector EMS agency, staff instructor and course developer with the Georgia Fire Academy, and private sector consulting with Department of Defense and federal agencies. Today he is a freelance writer for a major fire service trade journal on-line and has his own blog, ‘Talking “Shop” 4 Fire and EMS.’

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