Author(s): John Montes. Published on July 1, 2019.

In the Line of Fire

Faced with a growing threat of gun violence in the field, responders are increasingly being forced to consider ballistic protection
When a firefighter or EMT is shot and killed in the line of duty, it’s a tragedy that reverberates throughout the responder community. A recent example occurred in May in Appleton, Wisconsin, where firefighter Mitchell Lundgaard was shot and killed on a routine EMS call. Sadly, there will likely be similar incidents in the months ahead.

While being shot at was once primarily a law enforcement concern, it’s now a threat for all responders. Because of this, many departments have purchased ballistic protection, and a few even require responders to wear it as part of their everyday uniform, including EMS personnel in the Detroit Fire Department. With the threat of violence increasing, the time has come for all fire and EMS personnel to have access to ballistic protection, even for day-to-day calls. The world has changed, and we have an obligation to provide responders with adequate protection.

Responders are facing new threats and operating in dangerous places that they have never had to before. This is especially true of active shooter incidents, where fire and EMS personnel are increasingly being asked to operate in warm zones—the areas where there may still be an indirect threat of violence. Getting medical aid to shooting victims as quickly as possible during these incidents saves lives. This fact has led NFPA standards like NFPA 3000Standard for an Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program, and NFPA 1500, Standard for a Fire Department Occupational Safety, Health, and Wellness Program, to look at the need for requiring responders to operate in warm zones, within their department’s capabilities. Both standards now include minimum ballistic protection requirements for responders who do.


In addition to this changing landscape, more department leaders are also beginning to acknowledge that the day-to-day dangers of the job may require more protection than has previously been provided. For a long time, EMTs have been taught techniques for protecting themselves and for assessing the safety of a scene, critical tools for ensuring that they go home at the end of each shift. However, with even the best training, the reality is that nobody can ever really know if a scene is safe. There are countless examples of responders who arrive at a scene expecting one thing, only to get something completely different. I have run calls for a reported illness only to discover that I had walked into a hostage or domestic violence situation. I have had brass knuckles, knives, guns, and even a machete pulled on me during calls. Knowledge alone isn’t adequate to protect responders; they also need the right equipment to handle the hazards they face.

Obviously, providing ballistic gear to all fire and EMS personnel isn’t going to happen overnight—cost, training, and deployment issues are varied and will take time to figure out. But taking this step is far from impossible. Thirty years ago, the fire service engaged in a similar discussion about using air packs on fire scenes. Like now, many arguments were made about why the idea wasn’t feasible or affordable, but in the end the safety needs outweighed the operational and financial hurdles. Eventually, the use of breathing apparatuses was codified in the standards, and today’s firefighters couldn’t imagine not having them during a fire. We are about to head down a similar path with ballistic protective equipment.

Just as firefighters 30 years ago began to understand the risks of operating off air, departments are beginning to realize the risks of not using ballistic equipment. While this isn’t possible yet for every department, I think it is coming. Despite the many challenges, the safety needs outweigh the concerns. 

John Montes is specialist, emergency services public fire protection, at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler