Firefighters Under Fire: MSA Offers Ballistic Vests

MSA ballistic vests with helmet
MSA ballistic vests with helmet

In what is perhaps a sad sign of the times, increasing numbers of firefighters are required these days to don body armor along with their turnout gear, helmets, airpacks and medical equipment.

The U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Data Center reports that 2008 was the deadliest year for American firefighters under fire since 2000, when three firefighters were killed by gunfire while on duty. In 2008 three more firefighters died after being shot.

In addition, according to officials, dozens more firefighters were wounded in 2008 or reported hearing gunfire or finding bullet holes in apparatus or equipment during or after calls.

The worst year for firefighters killed by guns was 1996, when five firefighters died, four in one incident. In 2002, 2004 and 2005, one firefighter each year died of gunshots.

If a fire department wants to try to provide some protection with ballistic vests, the choices can be confusing. Mike Rupert, First Responder Product Group Manager for Pittsburgh-based MSA, said many fire departments have used body armor, usually passed along from police departments. “The problem with police hand-me-downs is that most vests are only warranted for five years,” Rupert said. “The materials in them break down and weaken.”

Despite an upswing in the use of ballistic vests by fire departments, he said there are few body armor companies that cater to the fire service. That’s why MSA recently announced it will market its Paraclete line of ballistic vests to firefighters. The Paraclete vests were built for MSA’s police and military customers, and Rupert said it was a no-brainer to start offering them for sale to firefighters.

“It made sense for us as we spoke with various fire departments, as well as leaders in the fire service, to offer these vests to firefighters,” he said. “We have the relationships and a good understanding of the fire service.”

Rupert believes MSA is the first fire equipment company to market its own ballistic vest directly to the fire service. While the Paraclete Bravo Concealable model was developed for police and military use, he said fire service customers will have different options. “They are the same panels inside,” he explained, “but we offer a variety of custom options for both the fire service and the police. The vest portion, which is called a carrier, can be customized for firefighters with pockets, heat-resistant materials, whatever they want.”

MSA’s vests, according to Rupert, comply with new ballistic standards issued in June 2009 by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). He said the MSA vests are among the first in the country to meet or exceed those new standards, which include stricter testing, more testing under different environments, better sizing, more water-proofing and more specific shelf life and warranty information.

Warranties are a sticking point for many fire departments, which often end up with vests that have exceeded their traditional five-year warranty by the time they get passed down from police departments. Even if vests are given to a department before the warranty period expires, they may be shoved in an engine compartment for years until a threat is encountered.

This was on the mind of Capt. Mike Pacheco of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, Station 181 Pomona, as he sought out new ballistic vests for his department earlier this year to replace aging ones. He is a member of the department’s equipment development committee.

“We wanted someone to extend the warranty period since they are very rarely worn,” Pacheco explained. But he said manufacturers would not do that because of the prevailing standards and worries about deteriorating materials.

Manufacturers use a variety of materials in ballistic vests, but Pacheco said he wanted the best – something likely to last long after the warranty ends. “I wanted to go strictly with Kevlar,” he said, “because it has proven the test of time. Ten-year-old vests hit with a shotgun get almost the same result as a new vest.”

Pacheco said shotguns are not rare items in his community, which has plenty of shootings, stabbings and gang activity. “One of our stations in Pomona last year went to a call to check the well-being of someone, and that person didn’t know we were responding,” he recalled. “When our engine company got there, one of the firemen went to the window to check and ended up getting a gun pointed at him from the person, who thought someone was breaking in.”

Pacheco said the county, where he has been working for more than 13 years, periodically puts vests out to bid as they age out of service. An MSA distributor won the contract this time around, and Pacheco said Los Angeles County would take delivery of 500 new vests by the end of 2009. They will be labeled “FIRE” in big letters and are rated IIIA by the NIJ, the highest level of ballistic protection available in a vest.

“We think it will even be more than 500 vests eventually,” Pacheco said. “We will be including other parts of the fire department as well, lifeguards, forestry and field mechanics.”

He said the purchasing process taught him the body armor industry leaves a lot to be desired, whether it caters to the fire service or not. He said 32 ballistic vests were ordered for new recruits a few years ago from a different company, but when the vests arrived, officials discovered they were made of a material that had received a lot of publicity for failing to protect wearers. “I sent them back and ended up changing vendors,” he said. “I had to go out to bid and start the process again.”

Once fire departments receive vests, whether new or hand-me-downs, local officials often develop standard operating procedures and guidelines for when they should be worn. Los Angeles County’s policy for wearing protective body armor, according to Pacheco, is: “All shootings, stabbings, domestic disturbances, bomb threats and any time the company officer decides it should be worn. Also any time the individual feels the necessity to don it.”

MSA’s Rupert said many other large cities carry ballistic vests on their fire and EMS apparatus, but he’s not aware of any departments that require personnel to wear the vests at all times.

“They can be hot and limit mobility,” Rupert pointed out, “and it’s not desirable to wear one into a structure fire.” He said vests are more for unexpected incidents. “Oftentimes,” he said, “you don’t have all the information you need when you respond to a call and find yourself in a violent situation.”

MSA Paraclete Bravo Concealable vests run anywhere from $300 to $700 each depending on options and customization, according to Rupert. They feature flex-panel sizing, a poly-cotton outer shell, and a nylon internal liner for comfort in various temperatures. They also have four- or six point flexible adjustment, removable straps, and hidden hook-and-loop closures for panel change-outs. The carrier (the vest part) can include various pockets, pouches, trim and colors as needed. The ballistic panels are made of Kevlar, but can be ordered with other materials.

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