Selection and Use of Ballistic Protection for Fire and EMS Personnel


As fire and EMS personnel become increasingly exposed to scenes of violence, there has been a push toward these agencies acquiring body armor. Although this idea is well intentioned, emergency service leaders must understand the limitations of the different levels of protection available and the best practices in deploying such armor. Issuing body armor should be limited to departments that have a tactical task force-partnered with law enforcement-for active shooter responses or that operate in high-crime, high-risk areas where the threat of gunfire is prominent. This article discusses the types of ballistic protection that are available for purchase, the limitations of body armor, and when personnel should wear such armor.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has developed NIJ Standard-0101.06, the Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor.1 The standard, which is similar to a National Fire Protection Association standard, describes the testing procedures required for body armor and identifies classifications for the various types of protection that the body armor will offer the wearer.

(1) The level III hard plate is inserted into the plate carrier. The plate is tested to protect the wearer from rifle rounds. It is important to note that the plate carrier can limit the protection to the anterior and posterior center mass areas of the wearer. (Photos 1-5 by author.) this video is part of the DVD “Responding to Scenes of Violence” currently available from Pennwell Books.

The standard identifies six levels of protection: IIA, II, IIIA, III, IV, and Special. Each level is designated to protect the wearer from the size and the velocity of the ballistic round. For example, levels II and IIA protect the wearer from 9 millimeter (mm) handgun rounds, but level IIA offers the wearer protection from a 9 mm round with a velocity of approximately 1,225 feet per second (fps) [355 meters per second (mps)], whereas a level II vest will protect from a 9 mm round traveling at approximately 1,305 fps (398 mps). Level IIIA will protect the wearer from handgun rounds the sizes of 0.357 SIG and 0.44 Magnum and a velocity of approximately 1,430 to 1,470 fps (436 to 448 mps), depending on the round. Level III hard plate and soft plate armor is tested to stop a 7.62 mm rifle round at approximately 2,780 fps (847 mps).

Fire agencies should check with the manufacturers for information on the vests that they sell; vests that are tested to NIJ standards will have a label or other information stating this. NIJ is increasing its testing requirements so that levels IIA and II vests can offer more protection against higher-caliber and higher-velocity handgun rounds. As they do with fire and emergency medical services (EMS) personal protective equipment, manufacturers may often exceed the standard.

It is essential to research in detail what you are purchasing. It is important to note that body armor has a shelf life. Most manufacturers will not warranty or guarantee body armor after five years. Body armor has limitations similar to those for bunker gear because they both contain Kevlar®. Also, sunlight and chemicals, such as bleach, can degrade armor significantly. Although many police agencies state that the armor is effective well past the five-year life cycle, the manufacturer recommends that the armor be replaced after its life cycle. Replacing body armor every five years can be of tremendous cost to first responders, so determine the policies regarding the replacement before making the initial purchase. It is virtually impossible for any responder-police, fire, and EMS-to know in advance what type of ballistic rounds will be fired at them and when. So, it is essential that fire and EMS agencies understand the limitations of body armor and purchase such armor responsibly.

(2, 3) This level III plate is inserted into a carrier. The plate is somewhat ergonomically designed to mold to the wearer’s body. Notice that the plate has substantial thickness compared with soft body ballistic panels.

As active shooting incidents and assaults on responders continue, the knee-jerk reaction is to provide body armor. However, one must not buy just any body armor. Agencies must also consider what types of threats their responders may encounter and purchase armor that will protect personnel from those threats. Police agencies typically provide their road patrol personnel with level II or level IIA ballistic vests. Some officers add additional trauma plates in the front and back for additional protection. Road patrol officers can wear the vest under their uniform shirt for an entire shift. Because of the size and bulk of levels IIIA and III vests, it is not practical at this time for officers to wear that level of armor for an entire road patrol shift. There are some lightweight level IIIA vests available, but the costs may not be practical to provide the armor to an entire department. Level IIIA vests can exceed $1,000 each; this begs the question as to what fire and EMS personnel should wear if they need body armor during a response or in their day-to-day duties.

Fire and EMS agencies that respond to high-crime areas and have an increased propensity to face firearms should consider outfitting their personnel with level II or IIA body armor to wear anytime they leave the station. These agencies are few and far between and do not represent the average emergency services department. I have written articles and spoken in training sessions on the effect that wearing body armor has on personnel’s hazard assessment.2 I maintain that not every fire or EMS agency should purchase or provide body armor. Agencies that have partnered with law enforcement and that are developing rescue task forces for active shooter responses should understand these different levels of armor and provide their responders with the highest level practical.

(4) An example of a level III vest carrier. This particular carrier provides <i>both</i> soft ballistic panels and hard ballistic plates. The dual ballistic panels provide additional protection but increase the weight of the vest substantially.
(4) An example of a level III vest carrier. This particular carrier provides both soft ballistic panels and hard ballistic plates. The dual ballistic panels provide additional protection but increase the weight of the vest substantially.

Another issue that agencies may face is requiring personnel to don level II or IIA armor when they respond to certain neighborhoods or apartment complexes that have exhibited a history of violence. These practices and procedures should come with a great deal of training, but such response does not represent the majority of fire or EMS incident response. Body armor does not afford you the ability to enter high-risk environments; it allows you to operate in high-risk environments and provides you with some protection if the high-risk environment turns violent and you are shot center mass (front or back) while wearing the vest. Regardless of the level of vest being worn, the vest offers no protection if the wearer is shot in the head, neck, or abdomen (below the navel) or under the arm.

Law enforcement personnel are trained to “face the threat” with their feet planted and shoulders squared toward the threat. This is in contrast to previous training where officers were directed to stand bladed to the threat and reduce their profile. This change was essentially driven by officers who were shot in their armpit area or killed because their body armor provided no protection to that area. By facing and squaring the shoulders toward the threat, the officer is increasing the chances that rounds fired at him will land center mass in the vest area. This type of training should be presented to anyone who wears body armor including fire and EMS personnel.

(5) The vest carriers that provide both soft and hard ballistic inserts provide additional protection along the sides of the vest. The hook-and-loop fasteners on the side of the carrier have soft armor that increases the coverage area beyond what the hard plating can provide. Notice how thick and bulky the overall vest is with this configuration.

Fire and EMS leaders can ask their law enforcement counterparts for information on the location of these high-crime or high-violence areas. Law enforcement can then provide to fire services statistical data on the amount of firearm incidents that have occurred in that area. Incidents of shots fired or a high frequency of law enforcement personnel encountering weapons in a specific area warrants, at least, a conversation between fire and EMS personnel on donning body armor when responding to that area. These areas usually exist in metropolitan or urban areas with a significant population, but they can also exist in smaller communities with prominent narcotics activity. The parallel between narcotics and firearms is well-known; responders should take note of the areas that have frequent narcotic responses because firearms are likely to be close by.

Other conditions may warrant deploying body armor. Frequently, responders may find themselves responding to the same address over and over again for medical patients who are either the victims or perpetrators of violence. As a precaution, it may be prudent to don body armor in these instances. Responders who fall into these categories and departments that provide body armor under these circumstances should know of the level of protection their body armor will and will not provide against the caliber of projectile against which it was tested.

(6, 7) This high-speed camera shot shows ballistics vest testing conducted at the Richland County Sheriff’s Department range for the Fire Engineering video production of “Responding to Scenes of Violence.” The test shows a 5.56 mm round fired at a level IIIA vest from approximately 20 feet away. Notice that the round enters and exits on the same path with little deviation. The vest did not seem to even slow the round’s velocity. Understanding velocity speeds and caliber ratings of body armor is essential when selecting and wearing ballistic personal protective equipment. (Photos 6-8 by Mark Haugh.)

Police special tactical units usually wear higher levels of protection and train to move and work with heavier and bulkier armor. These units may wear the armor for extended periods of time but not for 12 hours a day and several days a week. As with special police tactical units, fire and EMS agencies should consider providing higher levels of ballistic protection at active scenes of violence because fire and EMS personnel should never wear higher levels of armor all shift. Agencies can deploy this higher level of protection (that can stop rifle rounds and such) in almost any situation that requires body armor. The higher level III armor can be a soft or hard plate, and it can be donned and doffed easily. The sizing for levels III and IV is more universal than level IIA, II, and IIIA (Table 1). Departments that provide level III and above can simply purchase plates and plate carriers instead of fitting and measuring each member of the department who may need to wear body armor. Most manufacturers recommend that levels IIIA and below be measured for the specific wearer, similar to bunker gear requirements. Because of this, agencies will not be able to purchase level II or IIA vests for each apparatus or unit and still consider their personnel outfitted with body armor. Level III and above body armor, however, can be less strict with sizing procedures, can be worn in every situation, and will provide the highest level of protection. Again, it is virtually impossible for responders to ascertain what type or velocity of firearms they may encounter. Most fire and EMS agencies will be able to don and doff body armor in specific situations, and wearing such armor for an entire shift is not warranted.

Level III and above armor combined with helmets that offer some ballistics protection are recommended for active shooter incidents. If agencies outfit their departments with level III and above armor, they are one step closer to meeting the rescue task force recommendations in the Urban Fire Forum white paper on active shooter response.3 Acquiring this body armor in no way means that departments are ready to enter high-profile incidents where the threat of firearms exists; it means that only one of the many aspects of entering and operating in those environments has been addressed. Agencies need extensive training and coordination with law enforcement personnel before committing to such an operation. [I discussed many aspects of active shooter response in “Active Shooter Incidents: Planning Your Response,” Fire Engineering,September 2014.]

(8) This exit hole created by two 5.56 mm rounds during ballistics testing of a level IIIA vest shows that the vest, although designed to stop high-caliber handgun rounds, cannot hold up to rifle rounds. All ballistic vests are not created equally. Even the most rugged looking and feeling vests may not afford the best protection.
(8) This exit hole created by two 5.56 mm rounds during ballistics testing of a level IIIA vest shows that the vest, although designed to stop high-caliber handgun rounds, cannot hold up to rifle rounds. All ballistic vests are not created equally. Even the most rugged looking and feeling vests may not afford the best protection.

Many agencies are considering forming rescue task forces and other options to avoid losing lives while fire and EMS personnel are in staging, waiting for law enforcement to make the scene safe to enter. Statistical data on active shooter incidents show a high frequency of active shooters, especially those with a mental impairment or who are experiencing a psychological event, taking their own lives as law enforcement arrive on the scene. Shooter incidents such as Fort Hood in Texas, Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the Trolley Square Mall in Utah, and the Westgate Mall shooting in Kenya all involved aggressors with political, social, or religious ideologies as their motives. Each incident required law enforcement to engage the suspects to end the threat. There are many other examples of law enforcement personnel having to kill or wound a suspect to stop the threat. Responders must remember that the motive for the incident may drive the shooter’s actions, and the arrival of agencies with lights and sirens will not automatically cause the shooter to take his life. This is important because agencies tailor their response on the statistics of active shooters committing suicide. If agencies provide their personnel with body armor for response to these incidents, law enforcement entering and providing security for fire and EMS providers cannot be replaced by high levels of body armor such as level III or IV.

The use of body armor by fire and EMS agencies is still being debated. As active shooter incidents increase and departments explore how they may enter and operate in these environments safely, body armor will be a major concern. Body armor has limitations, and several options exist for outfitting responders. Departments need to evaluate the risks to their personnel and determine whether those risks and circumstances under which armor should be worn warrant its purchase.

Day-to-day wearing of armor and high-risk incidents may warrant the application of different types of armor. Agencies should engage their personnel and consult with law enforcement on what areas or responses warrant deploying and wearing certain types of body armor. Again, it may be prudent to have more than one body armor option, but departments that may need more than one level of armor are few and far between. Most agencies can provide level III armor and meet the needs of personal protection for most incidents.


  2. “Responding to Scenes of Violence: Q&A,” Fire Engineering, September 2012.
  4. “Active Shooter Incidents – Planning Your Response,” Fire Engineering, September 2014.

STEVEN C. HAMILTON is a 19-year fire service veteran and a lieutenant with the Fort Jackson (SC) Fire Department. He authored the “Responding to Scenes of Violence” DVD (Fire Engineering, 2015). Hamilton has been a reserve deputy with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department in Columbia, South Carolina, for almost five years. He is a certified fire officer III and instructor II and is on the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians. He is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and a former volunteer firefighter in New York and Texas. Hamilton has also been an instructor at the South Carolina Fire Academy and is an emergency medical technician basic instructor.

Responding to Acts of Violence: Q&A
Active-Shooter Incidents: Planning Your Response-full
Responding to and Preparing for Acts of Violence




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