San Antonio looking to buy armored EMS vehicle for FD

Fire officials addressed the increased scrutiny of military-style equipment in public safety, saying the vehicle would only be used to save lives


Joshua Fechter
San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO — San Antonio firefighters could soon add an “armored medical vehicle” to their ranks even as public safety agencies across the United States undergo scrutiny for increasingly using military-style equipment, but officials here say they have been eyeing such a vehicle for years.

“I look at this as a vehicle to save lives,” Fire Chief Charles Hood said. “I look at this as a vehicle that can come to the rescue of someone that is pinned down by an active shooter, their neighbor’s house is on fire, they can’t get out.”

Miami Fire Rescue uses its armored vehicle to help rescue victims during hurricanes. The San Antonio Fire Department is currently seeking to purchase an armored vehicle, which could be used to transport patients out of the hot zone during active shooting events.
Miami Fire Rescue uses its armored vehicle to help rescue victims during hurricanes. The San Antonio Fire Department is currently seeking to purchase an armored vehicle, which could be used to transport patients out of the hot zone during active shooting events. (Photo/Miami Fire Rescue Facebook)

The city is taking bids from companies for an armored medical vehicle to be used by the San Antonio Fire Department, according to a post on the city’s website. If San Antonio buys the vehicle, it would be an outlier among major Texas cities — Austin, Houston and Dallas don’t have one.

Firefighters and emergency medical services workers would use the vehicle to put out fires or move people away from a “hot zone” — such as a situation where there’s an armed person shooting at bystanders or someone who might open fire, Hood said.

On at least two occasions within the past year, suspects in standoffs with San Antonio police have set fire to the house they were in — making it difficult for firefighters to move in and put out the flames.

“When you need that vehicle, you need it,” Hood said. “And if we only use it once or twice in a year, I’m sure it’s going to pay out dividends by making the scene a lot more successful for us to manage.”

The fire department has sought such a vehicle for the past five years, but other funding priorities have nudged it out of the way.

But the department’s pursuit of the vehicle this year comes as activists and critics scrutinize the adoption of military-grade equipment by public safety agencies, mostly police departments. Riot gear and armored vehicles used by police, critics say, gives residents the impression that police are occupying enemy territory, not safe-guarding their own communities.

San Antonio Police Department has two armored suburbans and one Lenco Bear, a type of armored military vehicle, used by SWAT officers for executing “high risk” arrest warrants or dealing with standoffs with suspects or hostage situations, a department spokesman said. The department uses those vehicles at least once a week on average.

Images of police officers and federal agents dressed in soldier-like uniforms have permeated media coverage of protests against police brutality in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man killed in Minneapolis by a white police officer.

Hood, who is Black, insists that the medical vehicle would never be used to put down protests. Hood keeps a picture on his desk showing firefighters in Birmingham, Alabama, turning their fire hoses on African-American civil rights protesters in 1963 as a reminder.

“That is something that will never, absolutely never happen here to where we would use a fire hose or any type of vehicle to suppress protesters,” Hood said. “My folks understand that. That’s not a tool in our box that we would ever employ.”

The use of military gear by fire departments is far less common than by police departments, said Michael Leo Owens, a professor at Emory University who has studied police militarization.

Critics may be hesitant to lambast fire departments for employing such equipment if it’s used for rescuing people and putting out fires, Owens said.

In Miami, first responders have used their armored vehicle to navigate floodwaters and strong winds during hurricanes, he said.

“Most people think of the fire department very, very differently from the police department, where no one is thinking of use of force, violence, officer-involved deaths and those sorts of things,” Owens said.

It’s likely that as the United States draws down on overseas combat, manufacturers could increasingly retool their stockpile of armored vehicles to sell to police and fire departments, Owens added.

Read more: How to buy armored rescue vehicles (eBook)

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©2020 the San Antonio Express-News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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