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The newest gear for Pinellas fire and medical responders? Bullet-resistant vests

The firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians hoisted the new gear over their heads, gathered together in a classroom to learn how to use it.

It wasn't the bunker gear they wear to dash into fires or the uniform to respond to medical emergencies. It was bullet-resistant vests and helmets more commonly associated with police and the military.

Pinellas County spent about $720,000 on the new equipment in a move officials say allows them to respond sooner and closer to the scene of a shooting, narrowing a window of time officials say could make the difference between life and death. The county is the first agency in the Tampa Bay area to provide the equipment. The move is a response to a string of high-profile mass shootings in recent years and federal guidelines urging first responders to have a unified plan to address active-shooter situations.

"If we're really going to save lives, then we've got to move in as close as we can be," said Craig Hare, director of Pinellas County EMS & Fire Administration. "We want to be right behind the police officers as soon as they clear the scene."

The bulk of the cost — about $685,000 — went toward 484 sets of helmets and 42-pound vests. The rest paid for what the county is calling "major trauma bags," which include first aid supplies such as tourniquets and gauze with a clotting agent, both designed to stop blood hemorrhages. The equipment is for every on-duty position in the county, including for Sunstar, the private ambulance company the county contracts with. It is standard practice for the county to pay for Sunstar's medical equipment, Hare said.

An active shooting scene is split into several areas by law enforcement to help organize response, said the Dunedin Fire Department's chief of training, Erich Thiemann, who led the recent session in Oldsmar on the new equipment. A hot zone is where the shooter is still active. A cold zone is far away from the danger, such as in a church down the street. The area in between is the warm zone, which hasn't been secured by police and therefore still has a risk.

Fire and medical responders will still stay away from the hot zone, but the bullet-resistant equipment gives them a layer of protection to go into the warm zone with police and start helping and removing victims.

"That's all we're doing: handling immediate life threats," said Ross Pinney, a tactical medic with Oldsmar Fire Rescue who taught a portion of the training to practice dragging and carrying victims from a scene. There are about 60 tactical medics like Pinney in the county who are trained with law enforcement to go into dangerous situations.

While the purchase has been in the works for several years, last summer's Pulse nightclub shooting stepped up the urgency.

Orlando paramedics and ambulance technicians didn't have bullet-resistant vests and treated patients across the street in the parking lot of a bagel shop where police officers took the wounded. About a dozen victims died at or on the way to hospitals. A district chief told the Associated Press it was difficult to know whether more could have been saved had paramedics gotten to them sooner.

The training in Pinellas took on a foreboding tone as instructors emphasized that a similar mass shooting could happen this afternoon, tomorrow, next week at Westfield Countryside mall, perhaps, or a nearby high school.

That line of thinking — that it's not if, but when — is what sparked the idea for bullet-resistant equipment in the first place, said Lealman Special Control Fire District Chief Richard Graham, president of the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs' Association. The county is the most densely populated in the state and a tourist destination. It became clear to Graham and, eventually, other chiefs that the equipment should be a priority.

"I understand there's only so much money to spend, but this is a good thing," he said. "I promise you if this happens … the question is going to be, 'Well, why aren't you prepared?' "

The county is in the process of drafting a policy for active-shooter response. Graham added that the equipment can be used for other calls, too, such as domestic violence or stabbings. The county is leaving it to the discretion of each department to decide when to wear the helmets and vests in addition to the rest of their bulky, heavy gear.

Clearwater Fire & Rescue has already set a written policy, which says personnel must put on the body armor "prior to entering any hostile environment," including active-shooter incidents, fights and civil disturbances.

But, in response to concerns from firefighters, the department has made entering a warm zone voluntary, said Marvin Pettingill, operations chief. A few have opted out, but the majority have said they're willing to participate.

"We went to fire school knowing that we would have to put out fires, but … most of us never knew we would have to be wearing ballistic gear to respond to calls," said Sean Becker, president of the Clearwater Fire Fighters Association, the union representing Clearwater Fire & Rescue staff.

Becker said the union has other reservations about use of the equipment, such as the fact that it was bought per position, not fitted for every individual, which he said could make it less safe. Clearwater wrote into its policy that everyone must try on and adjust the equipment at the start of each shift, and Pettingill said the vests fit from a 28-inch waist up to a 61-inch waist. Outfitting every individual in a vest would have cost about $2.4 million, Hare said.

That high price tag is what has held back Pasco and Hernando counties from purchasing the gear, officials said. Both departments know they'll have to buy the vests and helmets in the near future to align with national standards and are looking for grant funding in the meantime. Officials from Hillsborough County Fire Rescue said they are not planning to buy the gear.

"Our county and our fire chief are pretty frugal," said Shawn Whited, Pasco's training chief. "You can't put a price on anybody's life, but if we don't use it …"

In Pinellas, officials hope they never have to. But just before the group at the north county training last week slid the gear over their heads, Thiemann made sure they knew what was at stake.

"This is not the way of the future," he said. "This is now. This is the world in which we live."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which uses information from the Associated press. Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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