Terrorism & Homeland Security: Body-Armor Purchasing Decisions

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 sixth article in this year’s series.

In the last issue of On Scene, we reviewed the steps fire chiefs must consider to help guide them in determining whether ballistic protection (body armor) is right for their departments. Departments that decide to use body armor will need to make a whole host of other decisions before they can get them on the street.

How Will It Be Deployed?

First, they’ll need to decide how to deploy it. There are several models out there.

A department may decide to have one for each individual on the department. This ensures every person will have properly sized equipment, and if personnel are recalled, they’ll have enough for everyone. This also allows volunteers to have theirs with them at all times. The limitation to this model is the cost.

A second model is to have one for each riding position on the apparatus. The body armor is purchased where one-size-fits-most. This allows body armor for all on-duty staff or volunteers that respond with units. It also reduces costs over one for each person and ensures the body armor is available for more-routine active-threat situations and not just the big ones.

Its limitations are that it’s more costly than other options and individuals may not have just the right fit since body armor is designed for three body shapes: male, female and gender neutral.

A third alternative is to purchase a limited amount of body armor that is then carried on a limited number of vehicles, such as a chief’s vehicle. This equipment can then be deployed during an incident to those needing it. The benefit is that it is the lowest-cost method to provide protection.

The limitations are that the body armor may be delayed on scene and will generally not be available on routine incidents. It also has the same limitations in that the department may not have the proper fit for every individual.

What Level of Protection Will Be Provided?

A second consideration is the level of protection to be purchased. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, produces a guide on body armor titled Selection & Application Guide 0101.06 to Ballistic-Resistant Body Armor. This is a must-read for fire chiefs considering the purchase of body armor, and it should be required reading for all personnel that wear it.

The guide states, “Body armor selection is to some extent a tradeoff between ballistic protection and wearability. The weight and bulk of body armor are generally proportional to the level of ballistic protection it provides; therefore, comfort generally decreases as the protection level increases.”

The NIJ provides a detailed comparison of each level of protection as well as most everything you want to know when considering body armor. In a nutshell, the basic levels of protection range from Type I to Type IV, with Type IV providing the greatest protection.

There is also Type IIA and Type IIIA, which provide slightly less protection than the Type II and Type III respectively. In general, Type IIA, II, and IIIA are typically soft armors while Type III and IV are hard armor designed to protect against rifle threats.

While the tendency may be to purchase the highest level of protection, fire and EMS personnel may find themselves with heavier and bulkier protection than the officers around them, including those who are directly engaging the threat. This may not make sense.

Similarly, if the department policy is to wear body armor routinely on EMS incidents, the more cumbersome it is, the less likely it is to be used. It also may slow the donning of firefighting gear for those performing firefighting duties in addition to EMS duties.

How Will It Be Stored?

A third consideration is storage, which may be closely related to the department’s policy on its use:

  • If policy is to wear the body armor on all EMS incidents, storage is only an issue if responders must change into firefighting turnout gear.
  • If the policy is to only wear the body armor for incidents with potentially active threats, the gear needs to be readily accessible to don before responding.
  • If the policy is to only wear it for actual serious threats, such as when using a rescue task force, the gear needs to be stored where it’s accessible but protected from environmental extremes of heat and cold, dirt and grime, friction with other objects during motion and moisture, and it must be in a well-ventilated area. Failure to properly store body armor will reduce its service life.

When and How Will It Be Worn?

The fourth consideration is related to the policy on when it is worn and whether the protection will be worn over clothing or under it. If its use is limited to specific events rather than as a general wearing item, having it under the clothing is probably not realistic. Conversely, if it’s to be worn routinely, a decision must be made on whether it’s worn externally or not.

The advantages of having it worn under the normal uniform is that it’s less conspicuous, but this probably isn’t practical for higher levels of protection. The disadvantage of wearing it under the uniform is that it may slow changing into firefighting gear.

Will Helmets Be Included?

A last consideration is whether helmets are to be included as part of the ensemble. With the body armor worn on the exterior or with a helmet, fire and EMS personnel may resemble law-enforcement officers to the untrained eye or they may be mistaken for a threat by officers who don’t recognize the body armor style.

In previous incidents, assailants have worn body armor as a means to protect themselves as long as possible. Law enforcement typically know what their protective ensembles look like, so during a high-stress event, any other ensemble could be mistaken.

To overcome this, some fire departments have opted to use a colored vest such as blue or red to clearly identify themselves as firefighters. Some use a colored stripe down the middle of the helmet in conjunction with the colored vest or in lieu of it. Others will use a tab with “FIRE” or “EMS” across the back or chest. Still others will use infrared marking systems that identify them as fire/EMS when viewed through night vision. Again, this can be used in conjunction with, or in lieu of, colored vests.

The basic consideration is whether fire and EMS desire to be quickly identified as separate from law enforcement or would rather use a more stealth look like the law enforcement. As of this date, there’s no consensus on how this should be done.

As with the decision on whether to purchase body armor, law enforcement, employees and labor unions should all be involved in the purchasing decisions. Law enforcement uses body armor on a daily basis and can provide good pointers as you make your decision. However, their use and ours aren’t the same, so while their input is valuable, it’s up to the fire/EMS department to ultimately decide its needs.

Without the buy-in and support of the employees and the labor union, the purchasing will be for naught. They’re the ones who must wear the armor when needed. Failing to include them will increase the probability that it won’t be used when needed.

The widespread need and use of ballistics by fire and EMS is an emerging trend. The Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department recently went through the process of moving to ballistic vests. They’ve provided great information on what decisions they made and why. The information is available on the IAFC Active-Shooter Toolkit in the document Ballistic Protection for the U.S. Fire and Emergency Services (this is a members-only resource, so you need to log into the IAFC website to access it).

The Terrorism and Homeland Security Committee will continue to provide lessons from departments across the country as they become available.

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