In August 2014, firefighters in Londonderry faced attack while attempting to extinguish a raging blaze; in October, members of the West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service were pelted with fireworks whilst attending to an incident in Leeds; in November, a survey of Scottish firefighters revealed more than 100 had been assaulted whilst on duty within the previous two years, including physical and verbal abuse.
In recent years, firefighters in the United States have begun to request body armour to protect them from assaults, but this still remains uncommon in Britain. However, for crews with experience of coming under attack, the merits of body armour are obvious: while standard equipment protects you from fire and smoke, vests can defend you from multiple types of physical assault.
To get the most out of your body armour, you need to wear it properly (being sure to choose the best size) and take good care of it. This guide is designed to help firefighters do both.
Choosing the Right Body Armour
As a firefighter based in the UK, you're much less likely to need bullet proof vests than those working in the States, and may prefer to use stab vests instead. However, if you operate in areas with high-levels of gun-crime,or are called to a scene involving guns (an armed siege, perhaps) you may feel more reassured and secure wearing a ballistic vest underneath your uniform. You have a wide range to choose from, with five levels designed to stop multiple types of ammunition, covering the more common bullets (9mm) to high-calibre armour-piercing rounds. If attackers hurl bottles, rocks, or even throw punches, ballistic vests offer limited protection against such trauma.
Stab vests also provide some defence against physical attack with fists and, obviously, blades – three levels of protection are available, to stop multiple knives and varying amounts of energy used in the assault. Stab vests can also offer protection against spiked weapons, such as needles and sharpened objects, with an extra-tight Kevlar weave to trap these pointed tips (check for a 'spike' rating before you buy). Stab vests tend to be more lightweight than ballistic ones – ideal, given the weight you already carry in your firefighting equipment.
Body armour is made in covert and overt styles, to fit under or over additional layers. You may want to opt for the former, as this will sit underneath your uniform without interfering. Regardless of the type you use, however, finding the right size is essential to maximise the protection your vest offers – wearing the wrong fit may leave you exposed to danger. For example, if your armour hangs away from the body, it may move underneath your uniform, causing an unnecessary distraction in hazardous environments demanding absolute focus, and pushing up into your throat or dropping below the waist. On the other hand, an undersized vest may feel too tight and restrictive, affecting your ability to work as freely as you need to. Ideally, your vest should reach no lower than the navel area, and sit comfortably against the torso. Be sure to measure your height and chest before you order, and compare these to your supplier's size chart for greater accuracy.
Maintaining your Armour
Some body armour suppliers offer a five-year guarantee on their products, but generally, if cared for properly, your vest should last even longer. While it can be tempting to wash a dirty vest in a full tub of water, this must be avoided – immersing Kevlar entirely will negate its protective abilities. Instead, you should use warm soapy water and a sponge to wipe the vest down, before leaving it to dry in a warm place (outside of direct sunlight, as this too can damage the protective fibres after prolonged exposure). Lay it flat – never place it on a hanger.
You should also avoid wearing a vest which shows signs of wear and tear – loosening weaves, slash marks, and holes can all leave you still vulnerable to danger, providing entry-points for future assaults to cause injury. Replace any vests which you deem unsuitable immediately.
While certain types of body armour may appear expensive (particularly at the higher levels), you should never let it put you off – if your crew has suffered attacks, and you believe they're likely to become more and more dangerous, the protection body armour offers is invaluable.