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Ballistic Vests– false sense of security?

The increase of violence against American law enforcement and firefighters has presented a new and not so innovative way to prevent damage from violent events from turning into a fatal event. The current panacea is the plethora of bullet or knife resistant vests now being issued by the various fire departments across the country. No vest is bulletproof so I will refer to them as ballistic vests for the remainder of this article.

Some departments are issuing vests based on incidents directly involving firefighters as noted in Webster NY and some due to the indirect threats as noted in the recent Orlando Pulse Nightclub shootings. There are numerous other departments that are either considering issuing vests to all of their personnel and not too surprisingly there are a number of departments stating “we’ve been there, done that” and the vests now hang in the back of the rigs or in the stations.

The background of protecting warriors against blade weapons, originates as early as the 1500’s with the increased use of guns, instead of swords, taken to the battle field. Earlier versions of protective vests were found in Japan made up of silk in layers and certainly the medieval knights wore suits of armor to protect them from arrows, spears and blades.

Both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and the most recent activity in Afghanistan and Iraq has brought forth an improvement of protective equipment that will stop most of shrapnel and gunfire but even the most protective of equipment will not stop an IED or other explosive devices - another current danger facing fire and EMS services.

Today, the modern version of ballistic vests are a combination of layered Kevlar with ceramic or metal plates inserted between the layers of material to hold them in place designed to protect the core of the firefighter.

The issue that becomes glaringly evident are the gaps in the protective equipment – head, groin, both sides of the thorax, arms, buttocks and legs. All targets used by a skilled shooter in these situations. Many departments who issue vests buy the off the rack – one size fits all, which do not fit “very well at all or at all” leaving large spaces on the unprotected anatomy at the mercy of the bullet or blade. They have to be fitted for all of your firefighters to ensure the greatest limited protection provided by this equipment.  

There are no specific laws or guidelines regulating the use or issuance of protective vests that would be similar to what we seen in firefighter protective clothing, helmets, boots, gloves and other standards formulated under NFPA or Anzi or other standards for use by firefighters. Most departments have created polices dictating the wearing of the equipment while on duty with safety of the firefighter in mind and selected a brand from a reputable manufacturer.

Hopefully your department has adopted a police standard from the US National Institute of Justice ballistic and stab documents which are examples of broadly accepted standards of ballistic protection. As there are other similar standards complying with a national standard for ballistic vests, do the research and pick one. These "model" standards are usually adapted by other agencies by incorporation of the basic test methodologies with modification of the bullets that are required for test. NIJ Standard-0101.06 has specific performance standards for bullet resistant vests used by law enforcement.1

 FEMA has recommended bulletproof vests in an article indicating that Firefighters and EMS workers be outfitted with this additional level of protection for responses into disaster areas or areas of conflict in the United States. Has this become the norm for the fire service?

Training - Departments issuing protective vests must couple that equipment issued with comprehensive training for their staff. Training should include self-defense and de-escalation training for the responder. The training should insure the use of the vest does not give the wearer a superman persona during times where your patient is armed with a gun or blade weapon. It would be a prudent move to have your local police department or other similar agency to provide a level of education related to the wearing the vests to include strengths and limitations of the equipment and to continue that education as part of the fire department’s comprehensive training programs.

The reality of these incidents are like in the Webster NY scenario, a bad person sets a home on fire and he lay in wait for the firefighters and assassinated them upon their arrival. Another example are the firefighters in Prince George County who were shot by the homeowner on a welfare check would indicate that the events are sudden and unpredictable. Our national experience demonstrates the events involving assaults of firefighters and EMS providers occur suddenly and unexpectedly and the results vary as to the degree of injury and death occurring to the firefighter and EMS providers.

Remember when we were “required” to wear surgical gloves to prevent infection from a potential blood borne pathogens. A lot of research went into that project and after some resistance, we adopted the blood borne pathogen standards and we make it nearly a “crime” not to wear gloves on every call. We have no empirical research on the use of ballistic vests by firefighters as our primary business is different than law enforcement.

Is it the future of the fire service to issue and wearing ballistic vests? Unfortunately, the nature of the streets and our patient populations are becoming more violent. Are we expected to enter an unsecure area containing a violent person? Even the police will not do that until there are sufficient armed resources in order to make a safe entry. Sometimes self-preservation of the responder takes precedence over the patient. Even when the police are wounded in a gun battle, the injuries are located in the extremities, face and neck and all of the unprotected areas on their person. Do not discount the fact that some of these injuries are devastating and may alter the officers life and career. Do protective vests save lives? You will not see a police officer without one as their discipline places them in harm’s way on a daily basis, so the answer is yes: protected against the one in a million shot to the vest.

Finally, I am not against providing the appropriate fitted protective equipment coupled with extensive training to make our firefighters safe. I am against providing a piece of equipment to our firefighters that create the impression they are bullet-proof - and we are not.

Note – the author has some experience with the wearing of combat vests in Vietnam as a Navy Corpsman stationed with 1/9 of the 3rd Marines. The vests were hot, bulky, heavy, got heavier in the rain and not very protective. Many of my Marines would leave the front of the vest open due to the heat and humidity and remove the plates and stuff the slots with canned goods to eat while in the field. The attitude was they would rather be shot than go hungry. Semper Fi.


1 - Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor NIJ Standard-0101.06" (PDF).NIJ Standards. United States Department of Justice. July 2008.

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