By James Mayse
OWENSBORO,Ky. — Owensboro Fire Department Chief Steve Mitchell has been in the fire service for decades but said a recent request the department is making to the state Department of Homeland Security is something he never expected.
The department is asking for a $44,600 Homeland Security grant to purchase body armor firefighters can wear during incidents where responders might be in danger of being attacked or shot.
"This is my 36th year, and I never thought I'd see, in my career, where we'd have to start thinking about body armor," Mitchell said Wednesday. "But, unfortunately, we are there, and we have to deal with it."
On Tuesday, city commissioners approved applying for the grant that would purchase 35 body armor vests and helmets for the fire department.
"We've had cases where we've had (a victim with) gunshot wounds, where our guys go in and start treating the patient" before the area is declared secure by police, Mitchell said. Also, new procedures on how firefighters provide medical support in shooting situations have changed.
"No longer do fire and EMS stay back and wait for police to clear the building," Mitchell said. "You go in and start treating patients," which increases the chances the victim will survive, he said.
Nationally, there have been prominent incidents of violence against firefighters and emergency responders. In 2012, for example, two firefighters were killed and two others injured when they were ambushed by a man who had intentionally set fire to a home in Webster, New York. In 2016, a gunman in Youngstown, Ohio shot at firefighters at a house fire. Media accounts say one firefighter was shot in the leg.
"The fire service is no longer immune to violence," Mitchell said. "Since 2012 in the U.S., violence against firefighters has really been ramping up. Firefighters have been ambushed, they've been shot, they've been stabbed."
Attacks against emergency responders in the fire service largely occur during calls for medical assistance. In April 2016, firefighters at a home in Prince George's County, Maryland, were shot, and one was killed, after they entered the home where they'd been dispatched for a welfare check on the occupant.
"Anytime you're going to what could be an attempted suicide, you just don't know what you're getting into," Mitchell said.
The Homeland Security grant is competitive, and Mitchell said he doesn't expect the award to be announced until sometime this summer. The body armor vests would be kept on department vehicles. A plan would be established for when the equipment would be used by responders.
"It will be based on (dispatch) call information," he said. "We're not going to wear it on every call … We give (firefighters) (personal protection equipment) to go into fires" and to deal with body fluids, Mitchell said. "Now we have to give them (protection) against knives and bullets."
The concept of firefighters needing body armor is still somewhat new in the fire service.
"They just came out with it for the fire service, because the manufacturers thought they (fire departments) would never need it," Mitchell said.
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