Fighting fires is a difficult job that requires a great deal of calm under pressure and the ability to perform confidently in extreme conditions. The turnout gear worn by firefighters can protect them against the extremely dangerous environments they work in, but it cannot protect them from the attacks they all too often experience.
On the 5th of July, a Milwaukee firefighter was called to assist paramedics with a patient. While on the scene, the 46 year old firefighter was shot and hit in the head. This is the latest in a long list of attacks on firefighters, many of which have ended in tragedy. Thankfully the brave man was not killed, yet this attack highlights the need to protect firefighters.
People sadly continue to target firefighters for attack, using weapons and missiles in a number of attacks to cause damage and injury. The majority of these attacks are ambushes, and involve firefighters being attacked and occasionally prevented from escaping after being called to a fire, whether real or not. This makes the situation very difficult for firefighters and there have been several suggestions as to how to make things safer.
How Can We Make Things Safer?
Firstly, some have suggested that extra training for firefighters may help them deal with dangerous situations. Training ranges from negotiation and mediation to martial arts and self defence, all of which have been suggested as possible solutions to dangerous situations. This presents several problems, and even without the extra time and cost it would take in a profession that already carries a great deal of stress, it would simply not suffice in most situations. Those who do attack firefighters often do so from range, and are certainly not capable of being reasoned with.
Secondly, it has been argued that firefighters need not be the first responders to some emergencies, and that where danger seems likely the police should respond to emergencies before allowing firefighters to attend the scene. This is immediately and obviously problematic, and would prove to be a great drain on resources for both departments; Law Enforcement has enough problems to deal with without checking scenes for the Fire Department. Similarly, firefighters will attest to the need to respond to emergencies quickly, and the last thing they need is another service in their way. Just as problematic however would be deciding when it was appropriate to call the police to these situations. For example, some may say that in emergencies in ‘dangerous neighborhoods’ the police should respond first; yet in one of the most recent tragic attacks, firefighters were called to a New York suburb with very little previous history of crime.
Clearly, those who for whatever reason choose to target firefighters cannot be swayed from their goal, and do not belong to one particular group of people. Firefighters cannot be expected to stop responding to emergencies, nor can they be expected to do so without the proper protection. Therefore it is imperative that a solution be found for these brave men and women. One such solution is to equip firefighters with body armor.
How Can Body Armor Help?
Many think of body armor as the domain of the Military and Law Enforcement, and the idea of a bullet proof vest is often seen as incongruous with the Fire Service. However, body armor is lighter, thinner, and more protective than ever, and is a simple solution to the problem of attacks on firefighters. Sadly, firearms are readily accessible for the vast majority of people, both legally and illegally, and ballistic protection is a necessity for firefighters. Bullet proof vests that are capable of stopping handgun ammunition are easy to wear and allow for a wide range of movement, but not every firefighter will feel the need for ballistic protection.
Violent attacks involving guns happen far too often, and even one instance is one too many. However, far more common are attacks in general that may involve other weapons, projectiles, or even no weapon. These attacks can still be incredibly damaging and even fatal, and it is important that protection is available for these situations. Body armor is still a useful solution, as a bullet proof vest can protect against a number of threats. For example, many do not realise that the protective fabric used in bullet resistant vests is capable of absorbing and dispersing a large amount of energy, meaning that it can negate much of the damage caused by blunt trauma and brute force. This is useful for firefighters who are increasingly called to dangerous situations involving explosions, falling debris, or traffic collisions. In these instances a bullet proof vest can save a life, even where no attack takes place.
Firefighters have always been required to attend the most dangerous and catastrophic situations, and being able to protect them in these instances is just as important. Attending disasters of any kind will bring with it specific dangers, and body armor is a useful tool in protecting against these. It has already been noted that a bullet proof vest can protect against things like falling debris, but there are also significant developments being made in body armor that can protect against CBRN (Chemical, Radiological, Biological, and Nuclear) attacks. Whilst these CBRN protective membranes are not yet a standard part of body armor, the NFPA 1971-2007 edition, which sets the standards for protection, already includes an optional section covering these threats.
What Types of Armor Are Available?
Of course, attacks do continue to happen, and protection against other weapons will require different armor. Bullet proof vests use soft materials like Kevlar to provide a lightweight yet strong surface capable of dispersing energy and trapping bullets. However, other weapons like knives, needles and broken bottles cannot be properly stopped by these materials; the sharp edges will cut through the fabric and penetrate the vest, while spiked weapons can pass through the minute gaps in the fibers. Incidents of firefighters being stabbed continue to occur, and these weapons will require their own protection. Stab and spike proof vest use materials like chainmail and/or plastic laminate to help protect the soft materials beneath and, of course, the wearer.
The need for body armor seems self-evident as reports of attacks on firefighters continue to be spread by the media, and the wide range of potentially dangerous environments they are called to only continue to increase. However, one of the problems with body armor for firefighters is the unique situations they find themselves in, and the difficulties they face with body armor. The main duty of firefighters is to tackle fires and fire-related incidents. This naturally makes for incredibly hot scenarios that will only be compounded by the presence of a bullet proof vest. The last thing most of these brave men and women need is more equipment that can get in the way or even increase their discomfort.
However, bullet proof armor is increasingly comfortable and lightweight, and can be worn in a variety of styles. Covert vests in particular may be beneficial to firefighters, as they can be worn underneath clothing or a uniform comfortably for extended periods. This means that when putting on turnout gear and rushing to prepare for an emergency, firefighters will not have to worry about their protection. Similarly, some of these covert vests incorporate temperature-regulating technologies to help draw moisture away from the skin and keep the wearer cool.
Moisture is significant problem for firefighters, as build-up underneath clothing can lead to serious burns because of the extreme temperature, and if nothing else the nature of their turnout gear prohibits moisture from escaping properly, thus preventing sweat from cooling the skin. A layer of temperature-regulating material will not only help cool firefighters down, but will keep the moisture away from the skin, preventing any build-up and subsequent burns.
Things for Firefighters to Consider?
There will be many situations where body armor is simply not necessary, and wearing a covert vest would only hinder the firefighter whilst providing unnecessary protection. For these individuals an overt vest may be better, as it can simply be equipped when it is felt appropriate. Many overt vests are available with zips, Velcro and quick-release clips, making them incredibly easy to put on and take off. This means that adding them to the equipment needed will not increase response time, while still providing appropriate protection.
Having armor available is incredibly important because of the dangerous situations noted previously. However, as mentioned in the last paragraph, there will be many occasions where a bullet or stab proof vest will simply not be needed, and making armor mandatory will only make an already difficult and dangerous job much more so. Providing firefighters with armor, without making it mandatory, allows them to choose whether or not to wear, ensuring that they can stay protected in the most dangerous of situations, without hindering their ability to defend and service our communities. Many departments have already taken steps towards this, and providing body armor to firefighters is an easy and effective solution to a sad and potentially deadly state of affairs.
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