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Mass. Fire Department Arms Crew with Ballistic Gear

The Enterprise, Brockton, Mass.

Brockton firefighters are getting a little boost in their paychecks to go into the line of fire.

The Brockton City Council Finance Committee voted on Monday to support an appropriation of $80,000 to fund a 1 percent increase in the hazard pay that's part of the employee compensation for city firefighters. This comes as a result of firefighters being trained to enter active shooter scenes alongside Brockton police, with the goal of reaching wounded victims more quickly, equipped with newly purchased ballistic helmets and bullet resistant vests, with a big, bold "FIRE" label on the chest.

"No one became a firefighter thinking they would need ballistic protection when they joined," said Brockton fire Capt. Jeff Marchetti, speaking to The Enterprise on Friday. "It's definitely a change in our work conditions and the way that we respond. But it's a needed adaptation."

The Brockton Fire Department recently completed the acquisition of a total of 38 sets of helmets, vests, goggles and tourniquet kits, at a cost of $3,000 each, or $114,000 altogether, using funds from the department equipment budget, according to Brockton Fire Chief Michael Williams. That means that each of the nine fire companies across the city will have four sets of helmets and vests on each truck, along with two sets kept in a command vehicle, Williams said.

"In the past year or so, we've got heavily involved in training for active shooter events," said Williams, describing drills conducted at the Goddard School last year, with volunteers doing role playing as victims.

Before the 1 percent increase, most non-ranking firefighters were earning an annual hazard pay line of $5,646, according to the city's fiscal 2019 budget. The 1 percent increase results in a roughly $56.50 raise in annual compensation for most firefighters, in a department with more than 175 uniformed members.

The 11-person City Council Finance Committee supported the funding request unanimously, taking the money from the city's stabilization account. The request must first go to a third reading before City Council for final approval.

"You don't put a price tag on health and safety," said Councilor At-large Robert Sullivan, supporting the request.

Ward 1 City Councilor Tim Cruise said it's a sad reflection on modern society that firefighters now have to prepare to run into school shootings.

"It's a pretty poor statement about our country that our firefighters have to wear helmets, these kinds of helmets, and these kinds of vests," Cruise said. "It's pretty scary that our firefighters have to wear that kind of equipment. ... But it's certainly great our people have been trained. Hopefully, nothing is ever is needed."

Capt. Marchetti said recent mass shootings at schools, including the shooting that took the lives of 17 people one year ago at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, have convinced emergency responders that casualties treated more quickly potentially could have survived.

"Unfortunately, the state of the world has dictated that we have a need for this," Marchetti said. "What has been shown in prior events is that if we have been able to get to these people sooner, someone who may have been viable—what history has shown we weren't getting to them fast enough."

The ballistic vests given to the firefighters are classified as Level 4, with ceramic plates inside, and the helmets are considered Level 3A, Marchetti said.

"We're told it will stop up to an AK-47 rifle round," he said.

While school shootings have been at the forefront of the discussion surrounding active shooter response, Marchetti said the probability is firefighters would more likely find themselves retrieving a wounded person from a different kind of shooting scene.

"(The training and equipment is) for any shooting. They occur more in businesses," he said. "So if we go to respond to an event like that, we'll have some protection."

The medical supplies that come with the shooting response kit are contained in pouches that go on the front of the vests. Inside are military-style combat application tourniquets, hemostatic gauze, and "chest seals," which is a high performance dressing designed to treat penetrating chest wounds.

"That has everything we would need to treat hemorrhage or penetrating trauma, if someone was shot, to stop the bleeding," Marchetti said.

Tyler Palie, who became a firefighter five years ago after serving in the military, said the vests and helmets aren't too heavy, and he's grateful to have them.

"I was in the military so it's kind of second nature," Palie said. "I like it. Anything is possible. We have to go regardless, so why not have something to protect us just in case?"

If Brockton firefighters ever had to respond to an active shooter incident with injuries, Marchetti said their vests will distinguish them from police, as victims seek emergency medical attention.
"That's important to us," he said. "We're the fire department."

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