Terrorism & Homeland Security: Ballistic Protection – Not as Simple as It Appears

The fire service is an integral piece of the homeland-security puzzle. Chiefs must be advocates and partners and knowledgeable about the issues. To help you accomplish that, the IAFC's Terrorism & Homeland Security Committee is bringing you this year's T&HS series, offering an in-depth look at the current issues and the resources available through the IAFC. This is the fifth article in this year’s series.

As more and more active-threat incidents occur throughout the United States, fire chiefs have to answer the question on whether it’s time for fire and EMS agencies to use ballistic protection.

While many urban departments, particularly larger ones, have already crossed this bridge, many small and mid-size departments are getting the question from their firefighters on whether they need an increased level of PPE for these types of incidents. While the decision can only be answered at the local level, there are some considerations that fire chiefs need to know to help them make that decision.

The first step in making a decision such as this is a risk assessment. While scholars may debate the terms, for the sake of simplicity, we define risk as a combination of the threats and vulnerabilities we face. Because the risks vary greatly from department to department, chiefs must evaluate how much risk for an active threat they have in the community.

For example, a community that has a university, multiple high schools and a large number of middle and elementary schools has a different risk profile for school shooting than one that has only a single elementary school. Similarly, two communities may each have a single high school, but one has lockdown procedures, locks on classroom doors and an active-threat plan while the other has none of these.

All of these differences must be taken into consideration in order to create a risk profile.

The second step is to consider the relative riskiness of the risks identified. This is done through information and research. Fire chiefs must look to historical events and work with the intelligence community to fully appreciate their risks. One community may have a history of civil disturbances while others may not.

Information can be gained through reading IAFC On Scene, attending conferences such as Fire-Rescue International and the associated National Counterterrorism Center Seminar, and using the Homeland Security Information Sharing Network to get weekly alerts.

Once a fire chief understands the community’s relative risk, they can then make an informed decision about the appropriate equipment to active-threat incidents.

Once a department considers their risks, they need to consider whether to use ballistic protection, commonly known as body armor. Departments may find that their relative risk is simply too small to justify the use of ballistic protection. It may also be that a department simply can’t afford the cost. Costs can range from $400 to $1,200 or more.

While the life span of body armor can vary greatly, most manufacturers warranty their product for five years. This means that it should be replaced regardless of use to ensure it provides the level of protection expected. If the body armor has plates to protect against larger caliber weapons, it may require additional evaluation to ensure its integrity. With these considerations, it isn’t just a one-time cost decision, but rather an ongoing cost.

Departments might also decide not to use body armor from an efficiency standpoint. If there’s a close working relationship with law enforcement and standardized means are established where fire and EMS personnel are adequately protected by force protection, not having ballistic vests can be less tiring, cumbersome and restrictive than using them. In next month’s column, we’ll cover the decisions that need to be made if a department decides that body armor is right for them.

While we try to shed some light on issues that should be considered, there are many more that will naturally come to light as a department works through this process. The Terrorism and Homeland Security Committee urges every fire chief to get informed, access their risks, visit with law enforcement, work with departmental members and organized labor to develop a policy that is realistic and manageable and systematically identify and overcome the issues that will arise. Not addressing the issue is a decision, a decision that may place you in a reactive mode rather than proactive mode later on.

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