Chelsea Fire Chief And Union Battle Over Ballistic Vests For Firefighters

Chelsea firefighters wore body armor at an active shooter incident this week in what the department’s chief believes may have been the first time Massachusetts firefighters used the gear, which is typically worn by police SWAT teams.

But it almost never happened.

According to an e-mail provided by Fire Chief Leonard A. Albanese Jr., the president of the union local demanded earlier this month that the vests — capable of withstanding a rifle bullet — not be used until firefighters got a full set of ballistic gear and an increase in “hazardous duty” portion of pay checks.

“I request that the vests not be placed on the apparatus until we have had an opportunity to impact bargain these changes,” firefighter Antonio Salvucci wrote in the May 4 e-mail. “In addition to the financial compensation, the local requests the proper training in use and capability of this equipment.”

The union demand for revisions to “hazardous duty” pay coupled with the claim of insufficient training infuriated Albanese, who said he had overseen extensive training in use of the vests for firefighters over the past several months and that he had union approval from Salvucci’s predecessor as president.

“All we did was give them extra protection,” Albanese said in a phone interview. “It’s disgraceful that this argument is being made.”

But Salvucci, interviewed by telephone in the presence of union spokeswoman Melissa Hurley and a union attorney, bristled at the suggestion that money was the paramount concern for him and the local’s executive board.

“This is something we attempted to address with the city before the Monday night incident, and unfortunately we got nowhere,” Salvucci said. “It’s not a money issue. It’s [about] getting my members home safe at the end of the night. We want them to have the best.”

The firefighters went to a home on Warren Avenue about 9:30 p.m. Monday, where a barricaded domestic violence suspect had set fire to his house after exchanging gunfire with Chelsea police. Before the shootout, police said, the suspect chased his girlfriend and their daughter to a neighbor’s home. He shot at the neighbor’s house, but no one was hit.

The suspect, Kelly Pastrana, 38, later died of a gunshot wound. Authorities are trying to learn whether he killed himself or was hit by a police bullet.

At issue between the chief and the union are the increasingly volatile situations fire departments face, given the Boston Marathon bombing and terror attacks around the world, along with the emergence of multicasualty incidents in the workplace and in schools by heavily armed individuals.

Prodded by the Department of Homeland Security, fire departments nationwide are recalibrating their first responder duties to include entering mass casualty scenes just behind police so they can rapidly provide on-site first aid.

Albanese said studies show survivability rates climb dramatically when first responders quickly stop blood loss, and he has equipped his department with TECC (Tactical Emergency Casualty Care) kits so they have the medical tools to do that. Providing the ballistic vests to firefighters was another part of the new approach.

Albanese insisted he will never require firefighters to be in what public safety officials call the “hot zone,” when police are still actively confronting an armed suspect. Albanese contends the Monday night incident did not qualify as “hot zone.”

Instead, his plan calls for firefighters to enter “warm zones” accompanied by police escorts to deliver life-saving first aid, but where they will not face life-threatening danger.

Providing the ballistic vests is the first stage of armoring his firefighters, Albanese said, and more armor will soon be on the way.

“I am baffled that this union president, after we have taken so many proactive steps to protect our firefighters, he, in writing, requested that we not put these vests into service,” Albanese said.

But Salvucci said that by providing just the vests to firefighters, they were subjected to heightened danger without adequate protection for an active shooter incident. He said firefighters should have been given ballistic helmets and protective eyewear along with the vests.

And Salvucci was adamant that firefighters were in a “hot zone” Monday, noting that police with long rifles were positioned next to firefighters at key moments.

“To be quite frank, it’s a day late and a dollar short,” he said. “We should have done this on the front end. We cannot continue to be reactive. We need to be proactive. . . . We need to assure our members are safe.”

City Manager Thomas Ambrosino said the City Council is poised to act next month on a funding request for ballistics helmets in the fiscal 2018 budget, which he expects they will approve. He said the purchase process will start in July and helmets will begin arriving soon afterward.

From The Boston Globe

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