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Ambulance crews in Little Rock getting body armor

by Scott Carroll | July 27, 2016 at 5:45 a.m.

The Little Rock Ambulance Authority on Tuesday approved a purchase of bullet-resistant vests for medics at the state's largest ambulance service, a safety measure taken after deadly attacks on emergency personnel and police officers across the country.

Metropolitan Emergency Medical Services of Little Rock is set to buy 275 vests for $275,000, and it plans to have medics fitted and equipped in six weeks. The agency employs roughly 220 medics full time and about 55 on a part-time basis. All will be required to wear body armor on the job, with few exceptions.

The agency's special tactics and advanced response team, a unit of 10 medics who double as certified law enforcement officers, had been the only MEMS employees with ballistic vests. The last time ambulance crews wore bullet-resistant vests in Little Rock was in the mid-1990s, during the peak of gang violence in the city. Those vests have long since exceeded a five-year life span.

MEMS Executive Director Jon Swanson said the agency began researching new body armor in late 2015. He said that recent mass shootings, such as the massacre at an Orlando, Fla., nightclub in June, and the targeted killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge this month placed a greater urgency on the process.

"The reality of that is, is that when something like that happens, the people who are there -- police, fire, EMS -- are going to do everything they can to reach and treat people, try to prevent them from dying," Swanson said. "We learn lessons as we look at the situations from Orlando, Baton Rouge -- all of these situations give us more of a sense of information, and a sense of reality, that when you find yourself in the middle of one of these deals, you can't go home and dress out for something. You have to react with what you have in front of you right now."

But Swanson said the "seminal event" in MEMS' decision to buy body armor was the killing of a central Arkansas firefighter in January.

Ronald Jason Adams, 29, was a volunteer firefighter with the East Pulaski Fire Department and a lieutenant at the Sherwood Fire Department. He was fatally shot the morning of Jan. 22 after responding to a North Little Rock residence where someone was reported as having a seizure. The homeowner, Mark Eugene Pruitt, 47, is accused of shooting Adams shortly after the firefighter entered the home.

Pruitt told reporters, after being arrested, that someone without a uniform had entered his house at 211 Dortch Loop. The Pulaski County sheriff's office, which investigated the case, said Adams responded to the home because he lived nearby, and that it's common for volunteer firefighters to wear plainclothes on such calls.

Pruitt has pleaded innocent to a charge of manslaughter. He's scheduled to go to trial Nov. 29.

MEMS began testing six bullet-resistant vests from three manufacturers in the spring. The agency evaluated the vests for ballistic protection, flexibility, weight and other factors. It chose to purchase Point Blank Enterprises Inc. Alpha Elite ballistic vests, which the law enforcement outfitter advertises as "the lightest body armor in history" at roughly 3 pounds.

The New York Police Department's Emergency Service Unit, the largest tactical police unit in the country, began wearing the same body armor in 2014.

MEMS will buy 245 of the polymer fiber vests, which are designed to stop small-arms fire, such as handgun rounds. Medics are required to wear the vests over their uniforms. The vests have a name tag and MEMS patch on the front, and "MEDIC" printed in reflective letters on the back.

Special tactics and advanced response medic Sgt. Daniel Dober, a former Navy hospital corpsman, wore the vest at Tuesday's ambulance authority board meeting.

"It's fairly comfortable," he said. "When you're holding it in your hand, that's one thing. When the weight is dispersed, it's fairly negligible."

Scott Gordon, Little Rock Ambulance Authority board member and former executive vice president of Arkansas Children's hospital, said at Tuesday's board meeting that he was pleased with the decision to buy the vests.

"I think they've done a good job of vetting the various options, the various products," he said. "I like the way it looks. It's clearly identifying them as a medic."

MEMS will additionally purchase 30 steel-plated vests from the same manufacturer. Those vests, which are significantly heavier, are designed to drape over soft armor and withstand rifle fire. Swanson said the heavy vests will only be used in large-scale emergencies, such as active-shooter situations.

Each of the vests will be purchased under the agency's $23.5 million annual operating budget. MEMS plans to replace the equipment every five years as a recurring expense, and use some vests as spares to replace worn or damaged vests.

Swanson said MEMS' safety protocol stresses communication with law enforcement and other first responders who may advise medics to stay back if a scene involves weapons or violence. Additionally, dispatchers flag certain addresses with a history of those reports.

Swanson said the policy has been effective, but it's no longer enough.

"That doesn't really address the kinds of threats that we're facing, the sudden and unexpected violence that can break out on calls that otherwise show no indication of a threat of that potential," he said.

Gordon shared a similar sentiment.

"Anybody who wears a badge or patch is a target," he said. "Anyone who drives around in a vehicle with lights on top is a target."

Fire and emergency medical departments in Ohio, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Maine have purchased ballistic vests in recent years, citing similar safety concerns. They range from agencies in large cities, such as the Cleveland Emergency Medical Service, to rural communities, such as the Winthrop, Maine, Ambulance Service, which operates in a town of about 6,000.

MEMS serves roughly 530,000 residents in Pulaski, Faulkner, Grant and Lonoke counties. The agency responds to about 240 calls per day. Combative or intoxicated patients who kick and punch medics are not uncommon, according to the agency.

Calls involving an armed criminal suspect are rare, but MEMS responded to one, along with the Pulaski County sheriff's office, on July 12.

Both agencies were called to a day care center at 4110 E. 37th St. in Little Rock after a man reportedly broke into a vehicle and pointed a gun at a woman and her child. The man, identified as Antwon Lavar Molden, 30, then dropped the gun and fled, according to an arrest report.

Deputies searched the area and arrested him at a house that he'd reportedly broken into nearby.

There were no injuries, but MEMS was prepared for the worst. Swanson said the agency set up a staging area near the day care center, alerted hospitals and opened communication with other law enforcement agencies.

"I thought, 'God, I wish we had the vests,'" he said.

Swanson said he didn't know of another ambulance service in Arkansas that had equipped its medics with ballistic vests.

Several emergency medical departments in Texas have bought ballistic vests over the past decade. The Dallas Fire-Rescue Department reportedly ordered body armor for firefighters and medics earlier this year, but had not received the equipment before Micah Xavier Johnson, 25, opened fire on law enforcement officers downtown in an attack that killed five people and injured nine others July 7.

Swanson said he'd spoken to a Dallas Fire-Rescue Department assistant chief about how its medics responded to the shooting.

"The reality is he had medics who exposed themselves to gunfire to reach those police officers and get them out," Swanson said. "Is that something they were directed to do? Expected to do? Not really. But it's what people will do. It's what MEMS people will do. And so we owe it to them to provide them whatever level of safety and security we can."

Metro on 07/27/2016

Print Headline: Ambulance crews getting body armor

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