Fla. Fire Department Purchases Protective Vests, High-Tech European Helmets
Oct. 09—DUNDEE—The Dundee Fire Department may be small, limited in budget and consist exclusively of volunteers and part-time employees, but that hasn't stopped it from being a forward-thinking agency.
"Our fire chief and the fire department are always on the cutting edge of technology," Town Manager Deena Ware said. "They're always looking to be progressive and seeing what we can do to evolve as an agency."
The latest purchase for the department was nine protective vests. Eight are level 2 vests worn daily by law enforcement. The other is a ballistic vest, which would be used for something like an active shooter situation. Chief Joe Carbone said firefighters nationally are receiving more training on how to operate during more serious calls.
"We're going to scenes now and we're seeing ourselves as the only ones not protected," Carbone said. "It's not something that I ever thought I'd see in the fire service. It's becoming more of a trend throughout the country."
Carbone, who also serves as deputy chief in Winter Haven, said Dundee was the only fire agency in Polk County that he knew of with protective vests for their firefighters. The town was able to piggyback off a state contract and get them for less than $500 per vest. Otherwise, they would have been close to $900 apiece, Carbone said.
"Any situation can quickly turn to something more dangerous, whether it's a medical call or a crash and road-rage incident," said Cory Hart, a lieutenant paramedic with the department. "It's just a different world we live in today."
Spokespeople for fire departments in Winter Haven, Lakeland, Haines City and Lake Wales confirmed that their agencies did not yet equip firefighters with vests. For Lakeland and Lake Wales, it is something that is being actively looked into. For Polk Fire Rescue, vests are limited to SWAT medics for SWAT and "hot zone" calls, but that agency will soon be equipping all personnel for incidents where there could be active shooters.
"We usually stage off scene for calls like that until law enforcement gets everything straightened out," Hart said. "That doesn't mean there won't be someone setting up waiting on us."
In February 2015, county EMT John Mikula was shot during a SWAT standoff between the Polk County Sheriff's Office and Michael Allen Phillips, who had barricaded himself inside an industrial bay off Dundee Road. Phillips was later found inside the bay dead after more than 250 shots were fired. Carbone said his department was providing mutual aid to the county on that call.
"It's a changing of the world," Ware said. "I think with everything going on, people are becoming more cognizant of trying to protect not just police, but firefighters and EMTs as well."
Implementation of the vests, however, is only one way the Dundee Fire Department stays at the forefront of the evolving fire service. Dundee also owns a ladder truck, which officials say is rare for a town with fewer than 4,000 residents. It was purchased in 2015.
"I don't know of any agency under 4,000 that has the type of arsenal that we do," Mayor Sam Pennant said. "As time goes by, we keep moving to different levels. Who knows? Maybe soon we'll have a helicopter."
Carbone noted that the oxygen tanks being used are also on the cutting edge of fire-service technology and are much smaller than what most other agencies in the county are carrying. Carbone said the agency is the only one in Florida with a European-style helmet, which is a different style, lighter weight and has a different communication system.
"The majority of the county uses these big boxes that hang off the side of the helmet," Carbone said. "Our communication system is built in."
The budget for the department for the fiscal year is only about $256,300. The Dundee Fire Department operates with just nine part-time employees, 13 volunteers and no full-timers, but still finds a way to stay on the cutting edge.
"We're fortunate to have the support of the town administration and the Town Commission," Carbone said. "We have to make a plan and we stick with that plan. We can't just go out and buy stuff like other agencies."
The motto for the Fire Department is "progress is our only tradition." The next big purchase for the department is a 24-hour generator, which kicks on automatically once power goes out —another amenity Pennant said is rare for a small town. Carbone said that will allow the public-safety building to operate "flawlessly" regardless of the weather.
"We may be small, but at the end of the day, we're fighting the same fires," Ware said. "With the budget we have, we're doing what we can to provide the best service for our residents."
The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla.