Here’s Why Salinas Firefighters Will Soon Be Sporting Body Armor

SALINAS, CA — As a Salinas firefighter, Josh Hostetter has dealt with much more than medical calls, wildfires and structure fires. 

He’s responded to gunfire. 

“I’ve pulled guns out of people’s hands. I’ve have guns drop out of waistbands,” said Hostetter, who is the president of the Salinas City Firefighters Association IAFF Local 1270. “I’ve responded to hundreds of shootings (throughout the years).” 

The Salinas union and fire administration requested to use $96,173 in restricted funds to buy 40 sets of bulletproof vests and helmets for its on-duty crews, which the city council approved 6-0 at its Tuesday meeting. Councilmember Scott Davis was absent. 

The funds are enough to equip every on-duty Salinas firefighter, said Doug Dirkensen, the Salinas battalion chief who will be handling the ballistic vests purchase. 

In addition to regular violent calls, he cites mass shootings as a major driver of efforts to obtain body armor.  

Those efforts date back two years, before the Gilroy Garlic Festival, which left more than a dozen wounded and four people dead, including the shooter, he said. 

But that massacre is on the minds of firefighters in Salinas, which is a 30-minute drive from Gilroy, Dirkensen said. 

“I think, rather than influencing (firefighters’ body armor proposal), it punctuated it,” Dirkensen said. 

Firefighters normally wait for the police department’s OK and protection to approach and treat the wounded in any violent situation, whether a mass shooting or a domestic violence call.

But if police are in an area that hasn’t been secured yet, that spot is known as a “warm zone,” said Salinas police Sgt. Danny Warner, who organizes the department’s mass-casualty training.

“It’s not 100 percent clear – there could be additional shooters, could be IEDs we haven’t discovered yet,” he said. “So it’s a dangerous situation.

That’s opposed to the “hot zone,” where “active, deadly behavior” is occurring, he said.

Firefighters won’t enter a hot zone, even with ballistic vests, said Pablo Barreto, the Salinas Fire chief.

But the additional protection of body armor gives firefighters more flexibility on when they can enter warm zones, Dirksen said.

“Without that equipment they would definitely not be allowed in,” he said. 

The sooner firefighters can reach injured people, the lower their risk of bleeding to death, Hostetter said. 

The Salinas SWAT team has its own firefighter-medics, who wear the same body armor and are stationed inside police lines during incidents, Warner said. 

“If there is an officer-involved shooting or a suspect needs medical attention, they’re right there in seconds,” he said. “They are a huge help.” 

Indeed, many fire departments nationwide already equip their personnel with flak jackets —almost 70 percent of 41 metropolitan fire departments said they have body armor, and of those without ballistic gear, 30 percent said they intended to purchase it in 2017,  according to a survey on the International Association of Fire Fighters’ website. 

Seaside has had one for every on-duty firefighter since Brian Dempsey became chief of the city’s fire department in 2012. 

He’d previously worked at the Rolling Meadows, Illinois, fire department, which had equipped its firefighters with body armor the last 10 of his 31 years there, he said. 

“It was a suburban department. It wasn’t a tremendous amount of violence or dangerous incidents,” he said. “However, it’s the ones that (are) unexpected that you want to prepare for… Anything that sparked a law enforcement (response) meant we should put the vests on.” 

There’s been no close calls in Seaside, but early on he noticed a number of violent incidents, prompting the purchase, he said.

The vests haven’t changed the protocol for violent incidents “in any way,” instead serving as “an additional safety precaution in case something unexpected occurs,” Dempsey said. 

Such daily calls also bring risk — domestic violence situations are among the most dangerous calls authorities respond to, Warner said. 

“It’s a heated situation where people aren’t thinking straight,” Warner said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen going in. They’re on a smaller scale, but nonetheless very dangerous.” 

The purchase approved Tuesday is from AARDVARK. The fire department asked to use capital-improvement funds, which are dedicated to equipment and other one-time costs, to pay for the vests without a bidding process because AARDVARK has a unique design that’s lighter and more durable, Dirksen said. 

Hostetter said the purchases is one of the “happy but sad changes to fire service” — good that the city is considering outfitting its firefighters, but sad because it reflects the dangers of the current era. 

“The Salinas Fire Department is all-risk — we respond to hazmat, fires, gunshot victims, vehicle accidents,” he said. “In order to be an all-risk fire department, you’ve got to protect your people against all risks.” 

From The Californian

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