Marblehead Fire Department acquires new ballistics vests 

Amid rising gun violence in the United States, the Gun Violence Archive reports more than 300 mass shootings so far in 2023, putting this year on track to become the deadliest year for mass shootings in recent history. 

Firefighters Matthew Lunt (left to right), Jake Morris, Matthew Chirstensen, Chief Jason Gilliland and Mark Tentindo showcase their new ballistics vests and helmets. CURRENT PHOTO / WILLIAM J. DOWD

In the face of this somber trend, fire departments and law enforcement agencies across the country, including Marblehead’s, are proactively adopting strategies, enhancing training and equipping themselves to better respond to active shooter scenarios. 

“In an active shooter situation, we will be involved on the side of emergency medical services,” said Fire Chief Jason Gilliland. “We don’t proclaim to be doing anything as far as mitigating the shooter — we will support the police in an emergency medical service role.”

The Marblehead Fire Department recently added 10 new ballistics vests and helmets to its equipment, sourced through the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. This purchase brings their total count to 14. The ballistics vests, fitted with steel plates on the front and back and soft armor on the sides, are designed to protect firefighters when they accompany police into an active shooter situation.

Equally vital to the vests and helmets are the life-saving supplies that accompany them, like tourniquets and chest seals, used to prevent victims from bleeding out. Firefighter Matthew Christensen, the EMS coordinator, dedicated significant time to compiling these medical kits.

As Christensen showed the kits at the Ocean Avenue headquarters, he expressed a sentiment shared by many in the department: “We hope all this stuff collects dust and expires.”

In Massachusetts, firefighters are trained to become emergency medical technicians (EMTs). An EMT’s primary role is to provide immediate medical care and support, prioritizing patient safety, stabilization and transportation. They work to mitigate further harm and improve outcomes until care can be transferred to more advanced medical providers.

When responding to emergencies, law enforcement and first responders establish a three-zone security perimeter: the cold, warm and hot zones. The cold zone serves as a safe gathering place for responders to plan, while the hot zone is the epicenter of the action where police are actively neutralizing threats.

“The police stop the killing, and we stop the dying and evacuate the casualties. We’ll go in with an officer,” said Gilliland. “They’ll have this kit on them, which is a triage kit. They’ll be able to classify the casualties from most critical to least critical.”

Significantly, the concept of the warm zone has become a game-changer in such emergencies. With their ballistics gear, firefighters and paramedics can now venture beyond the safe confines of the cold zone into this intermediate area, despite the inherent risks. Their proximity to the scene enables them to deliver immediate, life-saving aid to victims, applying trauma bandages and tourniquets to stem life-threatening bleeding.

The primary objective within the warm zone is to buy time — to halt bleeding until victims can receive advanced medical treatment or be moved to the safety of the cold zone. This tactical shift is redefining emergency response measures, potentially increasing the number of lives saved in the process.

In March, Christensen and Gilliland took the Active Attack Integrated Response Train-the-Trainer Course, offered by the Northeast Homeland Security Planning Region at the Lynnfield Police Academy. This specialized program strengthens the coordination and response capabilities of various emergency response agencies during an active attack or shooter events. 

“The lessons learned from past tragedies, such as Columbine, have highlighted the need for a coordinated response that goes beyond neutralizing the shooter,” said Gilliland. “The objective is to minimize the time between neutralizing the threat and providing life-saving medical assistance to increase the chances of survival.”

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