SAN ANTONIO – San Antonio's Fire Chief Charles Hood recently revealed one of the things that keeps him awake at night.
"When I go to sleep at night, the number one thing that concerns me is a coordinated, complex attack, or an active shooter incident and how we're going to respond to it," Hood said.
That worry has driven him to find a better way for his department to respond and to learn from the mistakes of others.
Hood said he's been picking apart each active shooter and mass casualty event that occurs, and he believes there's a way to save more lives.
With the blessing of City Council, Hood has started purchasing bulletproof vests, helmets and trauma kits, which will now be standard issue equipment for some members of the department, who will be called on to respond to active shooter and other mass casualty events in the city.
"It says 'fire rescue' on it," Hood said, showing off the new gear. "We're not trying to be SWAT officers. We are firefighters and we are more comfortable with hoses in our hands than guns."
That may be so, but SAFD's newest gear isn't for fighting fires. It looks like something a military combat medic would carry into battle. That's exactly what Hood is preparing for.
"It's a sign of the times," Hood said. "It's come to the point where firefighters are going to have to do urban type battlefield medicine in the streets."
Sending firefighters and medics into a dangerous, chaotic situation like an active shooter scenario represents a major shift for the department.
Typically, fire service personnel are left to stand on the sidelines, waiting for law enforcement to stop the threat and then clear an area before they go in to treat the victims, which can be a time-consuming process. After studying responses by other departments around the world, Hood said the goal is now to get in as fast as possible.
"We have seen that victims do bleed out and we have to be able to go in and get them," Hood said. "If you look at Orlando, there are probably people that would have survived if you could have gotten them out."
The extra protection provided by the ballistic gear allows rescuers to team up with armed officers, going into the scene to locate and treat victims as the scene is actively being cleared.
"So, that would mean I would assign fire resources under the cover of a protective force of SWAT, or law enforcement officers, as a team to go in and clear an area," Hood said. "We may have to do this in multiple quadrants of a building, or a large geographical area, so we have to coordinate that with law enforcement to make sure that we are covered, we have plans to get these folks out or are we going to shelter them in place and treat them because we are in a protected area. Those are all tactics we have to look at engaging. We're not going to make a move until we are coordinated with the police department, or whatever law enforcement agencies there are."
Once inside, the rescue task force members would triage the wounded, determining the types of injuries and the best way to treat them.
"With the type of weaponry that is used, you could get hit in the leg and bleed to death, so if we can go in and rapidly stop that bleeding, extricate them out and then triage them and transport them, effectively manage the incident, then that's what we want to do," Hood said. "If someone can hear you and walk and move to your sound, then they're walking out. There are others that you might be able to patch up their chest and put a needle in and relieve the pressure, control the bleeding, and extricate them quickly. Unfortunately, there are going to be some that are so mortally wounded that we have to make a decision about what we're going to do with those."
The rescue task force teams will carry large trauma bags packed with enough supplies to treat 12 patients.
The department has also stored large caches of medical equipment in various parts of the city that can be deployed quickly anywhere it's needed.
"These are things we don't want to announce where the equipment is, but we're looking at the whole city, because we may have to respond in this 490 plus miles anywhere in the city, so we have to spread that equipment and the resources out," Hood said.
While none of this will prevent a deadly attack from happening, it could reduce the number of lives lost.
"This is just a small component of what we're trying to do, but it's a very critical piece because our members have to be safe if we're going to allow them to function in a battlefield environment such as this," Hood said. "You never want to say that you're completely ready, because something will happen today, but as far as us being prepared, I do think we are ahead of most major urban departments."
According to city records, the first shipment of gear cost $118,488.
The new equipment is being distributed to firefighters this week.
Hood said the department's special operations teams are the first to get the new gear, followed by command officers and medic shift commanders. The goal is to eventually have all 22 ladder companies outfitted.