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The Color of Protection

Law-enforcement officers, our partners in public safety, are under attack and becoming targets, from abuse to assassination. New York City, Dallas, Baton Rouge—the unfortunate question becomes “where next?” In Webster, N.Y.; Maplewood, Mo.; and Detroit, Mich., firefighters and EMS responders have been ambushed, injured and killed.

The fire service mourns the loss of every law-enforcement officer. In doing so, we acknowledge that we’re also in the cross hairs. Responding alongside law enforcement places us in areas of risk; their risk is our risk. Teamwork is essential, necessary for unified command success. Situational awareness is paramount.

Violence directed at first responders has resulted in fire departments including ballistic protective equipment (bulletproof vests) as the next evolution in PPE. It’s imperative that action be taken to protect ourselves. This isn’t abandoning our commitment to stand by law enforcement, but recognizing that the heightened danger to them increases the danger to all.

A simple step the fire service should take is to evaluate the duty uniforms.

From a distance, can anyone really tell the difference between first responders? A small Maltese cross on the left breast and fire/EMS emblazoned on the back of the shirt may not be enough to identify personnel as firefighters, EMTs or paramedics. There are fire and EMS agencies that work out of law-enforcement offices and their uniforms identify them as such; those departments need to consider that risk and reevaluate that policy. If law-enforcement officers are targets, the fire service must take the sad step and necessary responsibility to ensure that others can tell us apart.

An obvious way is the use of firefighter personal protective clothing—not for protection, but for identification. Simply wearing a helmet or other type of protective clothing allows personnel to be better recognized as fire and EMS responders.

Fire departments already use uniforms that could be used to better identify our personnel. Used to honor those serving our country are the popular “Red Shirt” Fridays. On those days, it’s easy to identify those belonging to the fire service. The public has long associated red with fire departments. Lithographs from the early days of firefighting show many of the first uniforms were red. From a profession that prides itself in tradition, expanding “Red Shirt” Fridays may provide a way in protecting our professionals through an already established way of identification.

Red, pink, green; changing the color of the uniform, while controversial, doesn’t guarantee anyone’s safety. No one is safe from someone committed to causing harm. But it’s simple and cost effective and it may provide a protection option.

Law enforcement is changing its tactics and operations to meet the threat of being targeted and to defend themselves. To protect ourselves, the fire service must do the same, even if it’s as simple as to what we wear or the color of our uniforms.

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