Firefighters union: Detroit bought wrong body armor

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit firefighters and emergency technicians are being fitted for body armor, although union officials say the ballistic vests that were purchased last month aren’t right for the job because they don’t protect against stabbings.

Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones told The Detroit News in May he had secured funding to outfit his employees with the protective gear. Jones said he submitted a budget that included a $500,000 outlay for the vests, which was approved by the City Council and Mayor Mike Duggan.

Jones said employees are being fitted for Level II ballistic vests that protect against gunfire, and that the department will be outfitted with them within 60 to 90 days.

But Mike Nevin, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association union, said the vests, purchased from Kentucky-based public safety equipment-maker Galls LLC, don’t address the chief danger for firefighters and EMTs in Detroit, which he said are stabbings.

Jones insists he bought the right vests. He said the vests that protect against stabbings are cumbersome, and that bulletproof vests also provide defense from most sharp object attacks.

Nevin on June 29 filed two grievances with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, claiming Jones circumvented the Collective Bargaining Agreement by purchasing the vests without discussing it with the union or the Joint Health and Safety Committee, which consists of department and union officials.

The grievances state: “DFD bypassed and undermined the (union) and the Safety Committee by unilaterally choosing vests.”

The grievances also requested “information regarding the body armor vests, including how the vests were chosen, their specification and information regarding their performance.”

Nevin told The News on Wednesday: “We never discussed this, and Jones made it an emergency purchase, which bypasses the bid process. He spent that money on something we don’t need. We face more danger from stabbings than shootings.”

Jones disagrees. “There is nothing that will protect you against every possible scenario, but I decided to start somewhere,” he said. “When you’re talking about stab protection, those vests add a lot of weight, and the force it would take to stab through a bulletproof vest is incredible.

“So with the vests we purchased, there is protection against most attacks by sharp objects, and there is also a danger (from) gunfire, which is what I’m protecting against now,” Jones said.

Regarding the allegation he bypassed the purchasing process, Jones said: “That’s false, but there’s a grievance right now, and it will likely go to arbitration. So I’ll save my argument for the arbitration.”

Nevin insisted the city should have spent an extra $100,000 or so to purchase vests that protect against stabbings.

“The first week Jones was in office, we had two people critically stabbed,” Nevin said, referring to EMTs Kelly Adams and Alfredo Rojas, who were wounded in October 2015 by a man wielding a razor-sharp object.

Jones pointed out Adams and Rojas were slashed in the hands and face. “(A stab-proof vest) wouldn’t have done them any good,” he said. “The vests we purchased will stop most slash wounds, unless you take something sharp and push straight down.”

Robert Avsec, who served 26 years with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire and EMS Department and is a former instructor for the National Fire Academy, said knife-proof vests are not recommended for fire department personnel.

Avsec added the ballistic level II vests purchased by Jones are the norm for most fire departments.

“I wouldn’t recommend a (stab-proof vest),” Avsec said. “From a cost-benefit standpoint, I’d be very comfortable purchasing vests that provide protection from both gunshots and most slash attacks, which (ballistic level II vests) provide.”

Avsec said unless a ceramic plate is inserted into a stab-proof vest, they won’t protect against direct punctures by sharp objects.

“A big part of purchasing a vest is whether the rank and file will wear it, and unless you’re talking about a police SWAT team or something, the ceramic plates are quite cumbersome, and not something you’d normally wear for an eight-hour shift,” he said.

Nevin insisted Jones “jumped the gun” by making the purchase.

“This wasn’t presented to the union or the Joint Health and Safety Committee,” he said. “We meet monthly and test equipment and discuss equipment: Rigs, gear, boots — anything we’re considering purchasing, we bring it to the committee, put it in the field for testing, make a recommendation whether to purchase it.

“Our track record of working together has been awesome,” Nevin said. “This is the first time Jones decided to just go out and do what he wanted, and we just want to know why. This is a very important piece of equipment. I’m just saying slow it down, let us test it and let’s get the right vests. What is the rush?”

Jones said he’s “moving on” from the controversy.

“I got the vests, we’re fitting our people for them, and everyone I’ve talked to is thankful we’re doing something to protect the men and women of this department. (The grievances) are ruining the narrative of us trying to make life better for our employees.”

ghunter@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2134

Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN