By Ryan Pfeil
MEDFORD, Ore. — Several years ago, Medford Fire-Rescue firefighters responded to call where a man threatened suicide, and they had to leap on top of the man and restrain him after he pulled a gun.
"We were treating him and he reached under the bed and grabbed a gun," Deputy Chief Justin Bates said. "We were kind of stuck in this little bedroom, so we basically just had to dog pile on top of him."
It isn't known whether the man intended to harm himself or the people called to the scene to help, but if it had been the latter, those firefighters' usual turnouts would not have protected them from bullets.
Following the department's recent purchase of 25 ballistic vests and 25 protective helmets, they now have some extra protection.
"All of our front-line firefighters that are on duty each day will have these available to them if they need it," Bates said.
The $40,000 worth of gear — $1,200 per vest and $400 per helmet — are stored in the fire engines. The cost was shared between the department and Medford Rural Fire District No. 2, Bates said.
If firefighters are en route to a medical call, welfare check or other emergency that is considered higher-risk, they have the option to wear the vests. During incidents such as shootings where firefighters and paramedics follow police and SWAT onto high-risk scenes, wearing vests and helmets will be required.
"There are definitely some situations where we go in and we're not feeling as safe, so it's good to know that we have these if you feel like you need them," said firefighter Cole Rohrbough.
Firefighters across the country have recently been victims of violence while responding to scenes. In Maryland, a man shot and killed a firefighter during a welfare check at the man's home. A similar incident occurred in Arkansas.
Closer to home, Bates pointed to a report of a fire in Central Point where Medford Fire-Rescue responded as mutual aid, but arrived on scene first. They found no fire and found the front door locked. As they began walking around to the back of the house, they heard a shot. No one was hit in that case.
"We saw this as a thing that was sweeping across the country. I know some of the bigger cities have had ballistic vests like this for a while," Bates said. "We've seen the violence toward firefighters really increase."
The gear can protect against bullets, with metal plates in the front and back of each vest to shield firefighters from bladed weapons.
"We're used to wearing heavy equipment like that with our air packs and stuff like that, and luckily, we don't have them on for a super long period of time," Bates said. "It's just when we're in that situation."
Copyright 2017 the Mail Tribune