Matthew “Mo” Brabham learned firsthand just how vulnerable first responders can be several decades ago. He and another paramedic were moving a gunshot patient to an ambulance when they heard two gunshots.
“It sounded like it was right on top of us,” Brabham said. “We were outside, and everyone took cover and basically left the patient by himself. … I stayed with the patient, and in that moment I knew how vulnerable … we were.”
No one was injured, but Brabham realized first responders should be outfitted with Kevlar vests just like police officers are. His dream remained just that for a few years — but he revisited the idea when a rash of shootings aimed at first responders took place.
“If they were just protected they could have had a chance to go home with their families,” Brabham said. “At that time I started setting money aside to try and make this happen.”
He started a nonprofit organization called Arming Angels with the goal of raising funds to purchase bulletproof vests for first responders. A GoFundMe page was set up, and some donations came in; he had enough to purchase three active-shooter kits for his first donation.
His project was postponed in June 2016 when he was diagnosed with cancer, but a year later, he picked up where he left off with the project.
“It was my goal to get at least one of these done — cancer or not,” Brabham said.
On Tuesday, July 11, he donated the first three kits to Fire Chief Matt McGrew and the Winter Garden Fire Rescue Department Station 1.
“In my 39 years in the fire service I never thought I would see the day that the fire service could be on the front line of terrorism; Sept 11, 2001 changed that,” the chief said. “And I would have never imagined that one day we as firefighters would be wearing body armor to do our jobs. But, here we are, that day is today.”
Each active-shooter kit contains six Level IV ballistic plates, a plate carrier vest and a ballistic helmet.
The department previously had eight sets, which were carried in the battalion chief’s vehicle to be distributed to personnel when they arrived at the scene. This donation allows the WGFRD to have enough equipment to place several of these vests and helmets on each of the emergency units so they will be available immediately when needed.
“Department heads are awakening to the new dangers and are now starting to provide their employees with said vests,’ Brabham said. “However, the expense of the protective gear has made these a luxury instead of a necessity, despite the fact they are life-saving.”
“Since the Columbine, Sandy Hook and Pulse Nightclub shootings, first responders have learned that the sooner we can get into where the victims are, the greater chance of saving more lives,” McGrew said. “Obviously, this means going into a more hostile environment in conjunction with law enforcement.
“Every day, our units are responding to potentially violent situations — fights, stabbings, shootings, violent patients and overdoses — which could require this added level of protection,” he said. “That is why the added protection is so important to the fire department.”
In Winter Garden, the current percentage of EMS calls to fire-related calls is 73% to 27%.
Brabham hopes to raise enough funds to make this a national program. To learn more about the project and how to help, go to armingangels.org or the Arming Angels GoFundMe page. Donations can also be mailed to 1123 Whispering Winds Court, Apopka, FL 32703.
“It is very commendable that Mo, a paramedic who cut his teeth running EMS calls in West Orange County, is using his firsthand knowledge about the dangers we face to advance his cause to protect first responders,” McGrew said.