With shooters on the rise, Charlotte firefighters will strap on bulletproof vests

An example of the bulletproof tactical vests Charlotte firefighters will soon have available.
An example of the bulletproof tactical vests Charlotte firefighters will soon have available. Charlotte Fire Department

Charlotte firefighters will soon be protected by more than turnout coats and helmets: The city is outfitting them with bulletproof vests to respond to a growing number of situations involving active shooters and civil unrest.

City Council agreed last week to spend $525,000 on 372 sets of tactical vests and ballistic helmets, enough to equip every firefighter who might respond to an emergency scene. Other cities are doing the same.

Charlotte firefighters were first on the scene, typically to provide medical care and other support, at 16 incidents involving weapons in the past year. They were uptown in 2016, when protests rocked Charlotte’s streets following a police shooting, and at the chaotic scene in 2015 when two groups of people exchanged gunfire in Northlake Mall before an off-duty officer shot one gunman.

Fire Chief Reginald Johnson says he doesn’t expect to thrust firefighters to the front lines of highly dangerous scenarios such as when shots are still being fired. More likely, he said, they’ll provide “warm zone medicine,” such as extracting and treating victims with a police escort, while staying safer themselves.

“The reality is, it’s a fluid situation out there,” whenever firefighters reach an emergency scene, Johnson told reporters Thursday. The number of active shooters nationwide has risen since 2009, fire officials say.

But the department moved gingerly toward a decision to buy the vests, starting in 2012, and some critics say it militarizes firefighters in the way that the public might not like.

City Council member Braxton Winston, the son of a New York firefighter, said during last week’s meeting that he supports firefighters but believes armoring them will only encourage other cities to do the same. Winston and member LaWana Mayfield voted against buying the vests.

“I’ve been told by the (fire) chief that this is just a special group of firemen who will get these bulletproof vests, but I can imagine a world not too far from now when we’ll slide down that slope and have to put bulletproof vests on every single fireman,” Winston said. “... I will not accept this as the new reality and the only government action that can combat any type of gun violence.”

City fire officials also initially decided against the vests. But the National Fire Protection Association, which recommends standards for local governments, now recommends body armor when firefighters are exposed to risks during civil unrest, active shooters or similar events.

Charlotte firefighters will wear the 20- to 30-pound vests only sometimes, fire officials say, and in place of turnout gear that weighs 50 to 75 pounds.

“We don’t want to appear that we’re afraid of the public we’re serving,” said Division Chief Kent Davis.

But sometimes it’s the firefighters who need to be wary:

  • Last month, somebody fired a gun in Alexander County, northwest of Charlotte, when firefighters responded to a grass fire. Deputies charged Michael Douglas Porter, 54, with felony assault with a deadly weapon on emergency personnel. Porter’s fiance told WBTV that he had been in argument with a neighbor about the fire and fired the handgun into the ground.

  • In May, Gaston County police charged a man with “some sort of vendetta” against a volunteer fire department for shooting at passing vehicles, including firefighters’ private vehicles and a Belmont fire truck, the Gaston Gazette reported, over a period of months.

  • Police in Long Beach, Calif., in June charged a 77-year-old retirement home resident with shooting two firefighters who responded to a predawn fire at the facility, CNN reported. One of the firefighters died.
  • In 2012, a gunman ambushed firefighters at a house fire in Webster, N.Y., killing two and injuring two others, USA Today reported. Seven homes went up flames as firefighters waited for police to secure the scene.

Davis said Charlotte firefighters have had a number of close calls in which shots were fired. “These days, citizens don’t view us any differently from police — we’re all authority figures,” he said.

The Charlotte Fire Fighters’ Association, which represents unionized members, welcomes the added protection.

“It’s unfortunate we’re having to have this discussion, but active shooters are real, civil unrest is real,” said president Tom Brewer. “From the union perspective, the consensus is that if we’re going to be in those situations, we have to give our members the tools and training to protect themselves.”

Brewer views donning body armor as another step in the evolution of the job. Once sent solely to snuff out blazes, firefighters are now emergency medical technicians, contain hazardous materials and make water rescues.

Tim Bradley, executive director of the N.C. State Firefighters Association, said the association doesn’t track numbers but suspects that most departments Charlotte’s size are armoring firefighters, especially those special teams that are trained for active shooter incidents.

“It is consistent with tactics to get medics to gunshot victims before they bleed out and before the scene is safe,” Bradley said by email.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051; @bhender