Ballistic Vests Showing Up on Paramedic Units Nationwide

Ballistic body armor has long been a critical piece of gear for the law enforcement community for decades. And if your fire rescue department had a SWAT/Tactical EMS team, they had them, too.  But in recent months, with the rise in violence against EMS and other first responders, and in the wake of too many active shooter situations to count, departments around the country are pushing for ballistic body armor vests for its paramedics and firefighters. Agencies in places like Cleveland, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Michigan, Ohio, Colorado and Florida have already procured them.

These are not based on what-ifs; real reports of violence against EMS and FD responders surface daily.

With the PULSE nightclub mass shooting in Orlando still fresh on everyone’s mind, the City of Orlando Fire Department announced in October that it was purchasing ballistic body armor to keep on all 85 of their units – one for each of the 520 firefighters and paramedics they deploy. The bill will top $320,000. The June 2016 PULSE shooting claimed 49 lives, and the evolving scope of the incident kept paramedics at bay for an extended period of time while law enforcement frantically tried to sort out the scene.

As paramedics, clearly we have to enter scenes of violence whether or not law enforcement has completely removed the threat. While we do our best to practice scene safety, today it’s just not always feasible. But asking paramedics, firefighters and other first responders to enter a volatile scene without proper protection is ignorant on a level that is staggering in 2017. Unfortunately, this is the world we live and work in now, and it has become the nature of the beast.

There are dissenting opinions, of course. I have colleagues that think it’s another useless piece of equipment that will never get worn, taking up space on an already cramped rig, and sit until it rots and has to be replaced at additional cost. Others tell me they will never be able to don/doff it in time to perform adequate patient care. Some worry if they are properly sized; an ill-fitting ballistic vest does little to protect the wearer, and can often do more harm than good. I have had at least three paramedics tell me that they think carrying ballistic body armor will give the younger, less-experienced clinicians a false sense of security and make them more likely to run into something they can’t get themselves out of.

Pinellas County EMS (Florida) for example, just purchased ballistic vests for each crew member to store on the rigs. While they don’t have to wear them as part of their daily regulation uniform, the vests are still within quick reach and are considered a necessary part of the clinician’s PPE (personal protective equipment).

They are not alone. Departments nationwide have either already purchased and deployed similar ballistic body armor, or are considering making the leap. The cost is out of reach for some smaller agencies, but there are local, state and federal grants available. Orlando FD sought out as much outside funding as possible to equip their firefighters and paramedics with this life-saving gear.

FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) has a grant program in place to assist departments with the purchase of ballistic body armor (FP-104-010-035-1), although it is not widely recognized. The title is the “Purchase of Ballistic Protective Equipment (BPE) for Fire and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Personnel in Support of Active Shooter and Mass Casualty Incidents (AS/MCIs),” and it has actually been in place and approved since April of 2014, partially with money from the Homeland Security Grant Program.

Ballistic body armor has five levels of protection, but most agencies are looking at Level II ballistic vests/body armor, the same worn by most police officers; it offers a good combination of protection and blunt trauma with a cost of between $500 and $700 per piece. It is also designed to be less weighty with the same thickness and protection, and can be worn for long periods of time allowing the clinician to stay (reasonably) comfortable.

But the idea of paramedics wearing ballistic body armor brings me to another issue:  training. During a hot scene, it is difficult enough to rapidly extricate a patient, perform skills like advanced airway management and bleeding control, gaining intravenous access, and then lifting and moving that patient out of a volatile scene. While agencies everywhere have differing standard operating procedures concerning the use of such ballistic body armor, is there enough training available to show us how to perform these skills while wearing such a vest? And will we be educated enough on ballistic body armor to know its limitations, and the difference between the types of protection they offer?

My police officer husband insisted I carry one as part of my jump kit for the entire span of my career, long before anyone even thought of issuing them. And he told me one thing that has stuck with me all this time:  “Nothing is bulletproof. Nothing.”

My thought on carrying ballistic body armor on the rigs is this:  It’s another weapon in our arsenal. I’d rather have it available to me should the occasion arise, than be ducking for cover, running back to my unit. Hopefully, we may never need them. But just knowing they are within reach on the rig is kind of comforting. I think of them just as they are intended – as part of our now-necessary PPE.

The key here is going to be train, train, train. Train donning and doffing, especially if you are a system status management unit that sits at a post until the next job comes in. Train performing advanced life support skills with the added weight and bulk of a ballistic vest. Train wearing that body armor and successfully moving and lifting patients out of harm’s way. And train yourself to move quickly, so as not to become a victim yourself.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Leah Dallaire

Leah G. Dallaire is a highly accomplished freelance writer, editor and consultant with 28 years of experience. She has also concurrently been a paramedic for 20 years; the last 17 she spent serving the citizens of Pinellas County, Florida, which has a call volume of about 209,000 runs per year. She holds an M.A. and a B.A. in Writing & Literature from Union University. She has also just finished her first novel.
Leah Dallaire
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1 thought on “Ballistic Vests Showing Up on Paramedic Units Nationwide

  1. It’s sad that those who show up to start putting victims back together and whose sole function is to protect Life, are now being forced to do this.

    As far as training, EMS units desiring to begin using body armor systems should train with National Guard and Military units. We are required to wear ballistic gear regardless of our environment, and honestly, while the suck factor is always there you do mostly get used to it. I personally find the trick is to wear it fairly often- your body gets comfortable with it that way- and do the everyday things you would normally such as load the dishwasher, carry the kids, mow the yard, etc. I know how stupid it sounds and how crazy I look, but if you find a better way to get used to wearing an additional 20-60lbs on your head and body, I’m all ears.

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