Burton's 54 firefighters are wearing custom-fitted body armor on all emergency calls, a move spurred by recent attacks on firefighters and first responders nationwide, Chief Harry Rountree said.
Burton and several other fire departments in Beaufort County have had body armor for over a decade. Many purchased armor in 2000, after four police officers from Port Royal and Beaufort were wounded in a shooting in August 1999.
But the Burton Fire District has upgraded its vests and made them mandatory wear for all emergency calls.
Previously, the district's vests of varying sizes were stored in emergency vehicles and only worn during calls that had a potential for violence, such as suicides and domestic violence.
The vests were cumbersome because they weren't an exact fit, paramedic Daniel Byrne said. Holes in protection because of a loose fit and chafing in tighter areas were two common problems, he said.
Rountree said the district had planned to replace the vests when their service life expired, but high-profile attacks on firefighters in New York and Georgia accelerated that plan.
Two firefighters were killed in Webster, N.Y., in December after a man set fire to his house and a car to lure firefighters to the area, shooting them from a nearby berm. Two other firefighters were wounded, and seven homes were destroyed while police secured the scene.
In April, four firefighters in Gwinnett, Ga., were taken hostage after a man faked a heart attack. They suffered minor injuries when a SWAT team used flashbangs to enter the home, killing the man in a shoot-out.
Rountree said the seemingly routine nature of those calls was a major motivator in outfitting firefighters with their own vests.
Lt. Tradd Mills and Engineer Chris Lewis researched body armor manufacturers, Rountree said, while a committee reviewed proposals from several manufacturers. Burton ultimately chose Safariland, the company the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office buys its vests from.
The district used resrve funds to purchase the vests for $650 each, for a total of about $35,000, without increasing taxes, Rountree said.
Every firefighter was measured while sitting and performing CPR, to ensure the best fit, Rountree said.
"They did a good job with the measurements," he said. "We didn't have to send one back."
A part-time Beaufort County EMS paramedic and a former SWAT team medic, Byrne said he has three "vastly different" vests. He said the new body armor, made of breathable, waterproof Gore-Tex fabric, is the most comfortable.
Rountree said the vests, which firefighters have been wearing for about two weeks, are just "another part of the uniform."
"Body armor is just the same as the protective clothing and reflective vests we've purchased," he said. "We want our firefighters to be safe and go home at the end of their shift."
Byrne said the body armor is a "symbol that times are changing."
"We used to be ignored in a volatile environment, and we enjoyed being the neutral party," he said. "It's becoming more and more prevalent that we are targets."
"Even routine calls are very emotional," Byrne added. "People become impulsive and get hostile. It's nice to have a little bit of added protection while we're out on calls."