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Ballistic Protection in the Fire-EMS World

There’s a group of chief fire officers in the St. Louis Area who have found themselves on the front edge of a new frontier in the fire-EMS world.

The world has a new term and I have a new way of describing where I live and work. The term would be the Ferguson Effect, and I can now share with you that I work 8.8 miles south of Ferguson instead of 13.3 miles west of the Gateway Arch.

The world became familiar with Ferguson and the civil unrest in St. Louis in 2014, and I saw a drastic change in what we as paramedics and leaders of paramedics were doing on a day-to-day basis. The change is one we should step back and look at, hopefully realizing it’s important that we understand the needs, risks and community expectations when these events occur.

I have a long history of law enforcement in my background, serving 20 years at the federal and local level, both full- and part-time. I understood ballistic protection levels from the National Institute of Justice and the terms associated with them. The surprise is that I’m now having those conversations with other fire chiefs.

We have policies on when to wear the body armor and when you just have to have it with you. We now have NFPA Standards that discuss PPE for active-shooter and civil-unrest situations.

If you told me back in the 1980s, when I was first starting out, that one day I would have to budget for ballistic protection for my medics, I would have questioned why you thought that. I worked in the city of St. Louis and it wasn’t a concern to us; we were left alone because we were there to help everyone.

But here we are in 2018 and we’re having daily conversations about this very topic. As I was writing this article, I received an email asking what level of ballistic protection our vests are and did I buy them for everyone or just per riding seat.

At a time when we’re having really amazing advances in cardiac and cerebral vascular prehospital care, we’re spending time and effort discussing, researching and planning for things that may happen in our communities that require us to protect ourselves from the very people we’re here to help.

I can say without hesitation that I had no interest in becoming an expert in civil unrest, and I know I can speak for my fellow members of our mutual-aid coordinators committee to say they also would have passed on the opportunity.

Unfortunately, life happened in our community and we had to do what the fire service has been doing for years; we have continued adapting our job scope to meet the risk and expectations of our community.

I just wonder every day where we went wrong, that we as emergency medical providers have additional worries about our safety from gunfire and other projectiles during these demonstrations, when we’re going in and trying to help people who need our help.

Experts on 12-lead EKGs sounds a whole lot better to me than experts on ballistic protection.


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