Under Fire: Considerations for Equipping Firefighters with Soft Body Armor

by | August 25, 2016

Firefighters in America have a long history of being affected by the results of warfare and civil unrest. From the American Revolution, the American Civil War and Pearl Harbor, to September 11, 2001, we have been exposed to the risks and dangers encountered in human-perpetuated violence.

This unfortunate “tradition” continues with our current generation of firefighters. Today, terrorism and civil disturbances injure and kill both civilians and first responders. Typically, our police officers bear the brunt of this type of event; however, firefighters, paramedics and other first responders are not immune. In this increasingly dangerous environment, we must ask, “Is it time to provide soft body armor to all firefighters and first responders?”

Related article: Orlando firefighters to be equipped with bulletproof vests

A Look Back

In my research for this post I wanted to see how far back in time firefighters have been subject to violent events. One incident I found included the death of the first Union Officer in the American Civil War.

Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth was a personal friend of President Abraham Lincoln. Although not a firefighter himself, Ellsworth recruited many New York volunteer firefighters to join his regiment of the 11th New York Volunteers.1 Ellsworth was a fan of the Algerian Zouaves who fought with the French Army in North Africa. His unit adopted the uniform style of these soldiers, who became famous for their red baggy trousers and fez hats.

After Virginia seceded from the Union, Ellsworth took his volunteers to Alexandria. When they witnessed a Confederate flag flying from the roof of a local inn, Ellsworth and four of his soldiers entered the building to remove the flag. They encountered no resistance, but as they came down the stairs with the flag, innkeeper James Jackson shot Ellsworth with a shotgun, killing him instantly.1

Today’s Threats

Fast-forward to today: Firefighters can enter into an environment where they have been called to service and find no reason to fear violence. Then, suddenly, they can be attacked with deadly force. The motives of such attacks are numerous and not always apparent at the time. Solid situational awareness, as well as strong policies providing guidance for crew and self-protection, is essential.

In places like Cincinnati; Jacksonville, Fla.; Webster, N.Y.; and many others, firefighters have been attacked, and sometimes killed, while trying to render aid to patients. The recent assassination of police officers in Dallas is another example of a situation where firefighters have been exposed to gunfire. No firefighters were injured in this event, but five police officers lost their lives and seven others were shot, as were two civilians. A Dallas police officer later posted on his Facebook page that the firefighters and paramedics “didn’t get enough credit” for their response during the shooting. Apparently, the firefighters were pushing in to the “hot zone” in order to retrieve the downed officers. Situations such as this are definitely times when you want your personnel protected with body armor.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) has included response to violent incidents as one of its 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives.2 They have done extensive research and coordination work in this area, providing resources to the fire service community. The bulk of their suggestions are defensive, which is understandable, because the nature of firefighters is to help rather than fight. Retreat is not defeat when you are outgunned by your enemy; however, the changing nature of the incidents we are encountering may call for a different strategy. Firefighters may find themselves having to inch closer to the front lines than we ever have (intentionally) before.

One area that is being explored is “integrated response,” where law enforcement agencies and other first responders create policy and procedure, train, and respond together to incidents involving violence. Many communities are developing multidisciplinary Rescue Task Forces to respond to active-shooter situations. These squads are equipped and trained to enter a hostile shooting zone and extricate victims and pull them to safety; personal protective equipment (PPE) is a must in this type of response. If you are interested in these new initiatives my suggestion would be to visit the NFFF website and explore their vast list of resources.

Deploying Body Armor

Implementing a soft body armor program in your department starts with good polices to provide direction. Your company officers will need to know how and when to order its use. Situations that call for the use of body armor may include:

  • Civil disturbance or unrest, rioting and looting
  • Outbreaks of criminal gang activity
  • Active-shooter or other terrorist events
  • Incidents of domestic violence
  • Incidents where threats of violence have been issued toward firefighters
  • When law enforcement officials recommend its use

Deploying body armor to fire personnel can be an expensive proposition; you definitely don’t want to issue this equipment to each individual member. Concentrate instead on having enough equipment to outfit all on-duty responding members . Policies should cover the proper storage and ease of availability of the equipment when a response is initiated. Proper storage also includes following the manufacturer’s instructions and conducting routine inspections and maintenance.

My last point is about public image. We are usually seen as the “good guys” in the public eye. Seeing firefighters outfitted in protective body armor might give the public, public officials and fire chiefs an uncomfortable feeling; however, protecting personnel takes priority over comfort. Policies for use can include the concealment of body armor to lessen the impact on public perception. Concealment should not, however, be mandatory. Allowances should be made in policy for the rapid donning of this equipment when personnel are faced with an unanticipated violent encounter.

I certainly wish I didn’t have to write about this topic but unfortunately that is the situation we find ourselves in. Each fire department, or other first responder group, should consider the potential hazard today’s incidents present. Consult with your local law enforcement for advice on purchasing and deploying body armor if you think it is needed. Seek out grants that may be available if you can’t afford the capital expenditure.

There is no resource more precious than our first responder personnel. We as leaders need to do all we can to protect them.


SEAN STUMBAUGH is a professional services representative for Lexipol. He retired in 2015 after 32 years in the American fire service, serving as battalion chief for the Cosumnes Fire Department in Elk Grove, Calif., as well as the El Dorado Hills (Calif.) Fire Department and the Freedom (Calif.) Fire District. Sean has a master’s degree in Leadership and Disaster Preparedness from Grand Canyon University, a bachelor’s degree in Fire Science from Columbia Southern University, and an associate degree from Cabrillo College in Fire Protection Technology. In addition to his formal education, he is a Certified Fire Officer, Chief Officer, and Instructor III in the California State Fire Training certification program. Sean has taught numerous state fire training courses and has been an adjunct professor with Cosumnes River College in Sacramento. Sean is now continuing his career by serving as the volunteer Para-Chaplain for the Daisy Mountain Fire District in New River, AZ.

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