Do Our Firefighters Need Body Armor?

Chris Taylor   Chris Taylor

According to a survey conducted by the Peoria (AZ) Fire Department in 2006, 80 percent of the firefighters questioned claimed they had been assaulted while on duty.

The situation has hardly improved, with many recent stories across the news involving attacks on fire crews. In early September 2014, Detroit, Michigan, firefighters were assaulted with rocks and bottles as they attempted to extinguish a suspicious fire at a vacant house. Just weeks earlier in July, a crew in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, was attacked with fireworks by a group of young men. Also in July, Boston, Massachusetts, firefighters and paramedics were attacked by a group of three men.

Although most people view firefighters as heroes, a minority sees no problem attacking them. This raises a question: Should fire crews wear body armor when attending calls? If so, is the expense of adding this extra gear to fire department budgets justifiable? Many think so. In the past year, fire crews in New York, Florida, and South Carolina have started to wear protective clothing to defend against attacks, with the latter choosing custom-fitted vests.

The situations in which assaults take place vary. Sometimes, crews attend emergency calls in rundown areas and encounter violent individuals. At other times, they may attempt to help a person of unsound mind only to be attacked without reason or warning. Or, most dangerously, they may be called to a hostile police scenario with a high risk of gunfire and knives. When we consider the dangers of a firefighter’s work, we generally assume fire, smoke inhalation, collapsing buildings, and explosions are the major risks. Yet, this wide-ranging abuse is sadly just as significant.

How Would Body Armor Protect Firefighters?

The first concern of wearing body armor is the extra weight and bulk it will add to a firefighter’s clothing. To perform at the best of their abilities, firefighters need the flexibility and freedom to run, avoid falling debris, jump, climb structures, and carry people to safety. When adding body armor to the gear they already carry-helmets, turnout pants and jackets, and breathing apparatus-this may take some getting used to. However, the risk of gunshots or stab wounds poses a greater danger, and not all body armors are the heavy-duty type we see police officers and military personnel wear. There are other options.

Bulletproof vests, stabproof vests, and spiked-weapon vests offer varying levels of protection against their respective dangers. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) categorizes these levels following stringent tests. Although fire crews can never know exactly what type of reception they’re likely to get at a scene, they should make a decision on whether they expect a specific attack or not and wear the appropriate armor. For example, if they’re called to assist police at a burning building that is also the scene of an armed siege, bulletproof armor will prove essential. Likewise, if called to a fire in an area with high levels of stabbings or youth crime, stab vests may be more appropriate.

Firefighters should always retain the right to use their judgment regarding armor use: if they need to cut someone out of a wrecked car or help bring somebody down from a rooftop, their armor is likely unnecessary, and they should be free to remove it as they see fit.

Choosing the Right Body Armor

Once firefighters decide to wear protective clothing, they must choose the right vest for the expected risk. For example, bulletproof armor will not defend completely against a blade, nor will a stab vest protect firefighters from a bullet. Alternatively, there are some vests that provide protection against bullets, blades, and spiked weapons at the same time, though these may prove very expensive if bought for an entire fire department. Singular vests may prove more practical.

Bulletproof Vests

These are ranked by the NIJ at various levels: II, IIIa, III, and IV. First-level vests defend against common handguns from 9-mm up to 0.357 Magnums. The second level protects against 9-mm submachine guns and 0.44 Magnum rounds. Both of these feature Kevlar® in their construction, but level IIIa vests are heavier because of the additional layers.

One step up from the IIIa vest is the level III, which features added hard plates to protect against rifle rounds. The level IV vest features panels on the front and back into which hard plates, typically made of ceramics, steel, or titanium, can be inserted to resist armor-piercing and high-velocity rifle rounds. These vests will also provide protection against rocks and other thrown objects.

Obviously, level III and IV vests are much heavier than the softer armors, which can affect the wearer’s flexibility and agility. Firefighters will only need these in the most extreme situations where high-caliber guns are present.

Stab and Spiked-Weapon Vests

Firefighters are more likely to face long-range dangers but may also need stab vests in certain high-crime areas. These are available in two levels: II and III, with the higher featuring more layers to defend against more ferocious attacks. Their tightly woven fabric provides friction against blades and stops them passing through.

Spiked-weapon vests defend against items with sharpened tips, such as needles and syringes, which may be a risk if attending an emergency at a drug den or a known addict’s house. These vests feature an even tighter weave than stab vests and stop a pointed tip from passing through.

Body armor is available in covert and overt styles to be worn over or under clothing. Firefighters may find covert styles to be more comfortable, as these will not interfere with the uniform, and their moisture-wicking fabrics will help the wearer stay cool during prolonged use.

Wearing the right size is also essential. Protective vests should hang no lower than the navel area. If they do, they’re too big. Conversely, they should not be too tight so as to restrict the wearer’s movements. The ideal fit will leave the wearer comfortable, flexible, and able to move exactly as needed.

Ultimately, the choice to equip a fire crew with body armor comes down to various factors: viable risks, budget, and so on. However, with the threat of assault as prevalent as ever, this deserves serious consideration.

CHRIS TAYLOR is an expert writer for SafeGuard Clothing, which provides a range of body armor, stabproof vests, and other levels of protective clothing.

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