Firefighter PPE has come a long way since the first days of the volunteer firefighter stations. Most firefighters back then responded to fires in whatever they happened to be wearing at the time whether it be regular clothes or old uniforms from their time in the military. Due to the lack of protection most structures often burned to the ground because firefighters fought the fire from outside and interior operations were simply not possible.
With the formation of the NFPA, National Fire Codes provided standards to protect firefighters such as “NFPA 1971 Protective Ensemble for Structural Fire Fighting. ” As firefighting technology improved, strategies and tactics became more aggressive. With full head to toe PPE, firefighters can now safely respond to numerous types of emergencies and efficiently do their job. In the early days of firefighting it would be that the only emergencies that firefighters would respond to is fires, nowadays that is not the case.
In fact the majority of a Fire Department’s calls will be medical aids or medical emergencies. It is not likely that full turnout gear is needed to protect the firefighter from medical hazards and to don such PPE would be a waste of time. Standard Precautions are a set of infection control practices used to prevent transmission of diseases that can be acquired by contact with blood, body fluids, non-intact skin (including rashes) and mucous membranes. These measures are to be used when providing care to all individuals whether or not they appear to be infectious or symptomatic.
Standard Precautions should always be taken such as latex gloves, EMS or protective eyewear, HEPA masks if contagious airborne diseases are present and isolation gowns if highly contagious diseases are present. Latex gloves should be worn on all medical aids whether obvious threats are present or not. Safety glasses are also required on all medical aids to prevent splashing of blood or vomitus in eyes and prevent pathogens from being coughed into your eyes. Face shields also provide total eye and face protection but is optional.
High Efficiency Particulate Air or HEPA masks filter out 95% of airborne particles and are used to protect firefighters and EMS personnel from airborne diseases such as Tuberculosis, H1N1 and Meningitis. The most commonly used form of HEPA mask amongst firefighters and EMS personnel is the N95. Isolation gowns are not commonly seen in the Pre-hospital setting but more in health care facilities. But as more firefighters and EMS personnel are becoming more knowledgeable about the benefits they are becoming more popular.
Isolation gowns can be described as a disposable plastic or linen gown to act as a protective barrier against highly contagious pathogens such as MRSA, C Difficile and VRE. The oldest and most recognizable form of PPE is the turnouts or “Bunker Gear” that is worn at structure fires and rescue operations. This will include turnouts, boots, helmet and SCBA’s. Turnouts consist of insulated pants with reflective striping and suspenders connecting at the pants at eight points; insulated jacket with reflective striping that is closed with Velcro and spring hooks; insulated leather gloves and a Nomex hood.
Turnouts are required to have three levels of protection such as an outer layer of flame resistant fabric that will not be destroyed by being charred or melted when exposed to 500 degrees Fahrenheit for a five minute period; a middle layer to prevent water or moisture from penetrating through to the firefighter; and a third layer to provide thermal insulation from radiant, convective and conducted heat.
Some newer turnouts are so advanced and effective that the outer layer can withstand heat up to 1200 degrees Fahrenheit; the middle layer can not only prevent but releases moisture from inside the gear; an inner layer that is made up of a synthetic fire-resistant material and on top of all that, the material is self-extinguishing. Rubber boots are to be insulated, steel toed and resistant to heat and electrical current.
Helmets are made up of a high-tech plastic and composite-material that are resistant to heat and electrical current. The long rear brim design was made to prevent water and hot embers from rolling down into the firefighter’s collar. Helmets are also outfitted with a suspension system and energy-absorbing foam liners; goggles or face shields for eye protection; and flaps that are flame resistant to protect the ears and neck.
Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus or SCBA is used to provide breathable air for firefighters in environments with inhalation hazards such as toxic smoke and oxygen deficiency usually caused by structure fires. SCBA’s consist of four main components such as a backpack, a high pressure tank, a pressure regulator and a face mask for inhalation. Since the SCBA provides breathable air with positive pressure, the firefighter will not breathe any harmful products if there is a face mask seal leak.
The SCBA is equipped with a fire resistant air tank, a backpack that is designed to be donned quickly, adjustable waist and shoulder straps to securely fit different size users, a warning bell or whistle system to alarm firefighters if the tank is low on air, and even newer SCBAs are built in with communication systems that allow the firefighter to communicate person to person or over the radio. All turnouts are now equipped with the Personal Alert Safety System or PASS device.
This device is worn by firefighters in case they are injured or unconscious, when activated the PASS device will set off a loud alarm and flashing light if it senses the firefighter is motionless for some time usually around 30 seconds. Some may assume that a wildland firefighter’s task is the same as a firefighter working on a structure fire and should be wearing the same PPE but that is not the case. In fact the goal of wildland PPE is quite different in the way that instead to overly insulate, you want to protect and keep the firefighter as cool as possible.
Wildland firefighting is highly active with hiking, digging and carrying hoses and hand tools long distances all under very hot conditions. Usual PPE includes a fire retardant cotton jacket and pants, helmet, leather boots, gloves and emergency shelter. Fire retardant cotton jacket and pants are double layered and have reflective striping for visibility. Firefighters wear Nomex pants and long sleeved cotton shirts under turnouts for added protection. Helmet is of the hard hat construction type that includes goggles and a shroud to cover face and to leave no skin exposed.
Boots are leather and usually not steel toed to prevent heating up and should be worn in before working on a fire. Wildland gloves are leather and not double layered like structural firefighting gloves are therefore lighter. The emergency shelter is considered a last resort protection or PPE. It is an aluminum coated Mylar sheet that is used to cover the firefighter if he or she is surrounded by fire and has no means of escape, the emergency shelter is meant to provide enough protection from radiant heat to allow the fire to pass over the firefighter without killing them.
Now more than ever firefighters are responding to incidents involving hazardous materials or Hazmat. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines Hazmat as “a material (as flammable or poisonous material) that would be a danger to life or the environment if released without precautions. ” Due to the heightened dangerousness of these incidents, a firefighter cannot respond in their regular PPE. Hazmat PPE is designed in two different levels of protection, Level A and Level B. Level A suits are airtight and provide total containment that gives protection from all forms of chemicals such as solid, vapors, gasses and liquid.
Level B suits do not provide total containment due to not being airtight therefore only giving protection from splashing liquids and solids. PPE consists of possible four layers and a SCBA depending on which level of protection needed. First layer is a Nomex jump suit or Nomex “Class B” uniform. Second layer is a disposable Tyvek suit that is impermeable to most chemicals; you would also wear Tyvek boodies over your boots and a SCBA. With these first two layers you would be at Level B protection.
The outer third layer would put you at full containment Level A protection. This layer is a full body suit complete with a sealed hood and a one way pressure bleed valve for exhaled air. Also available is an optional fourth layer which is a flash suit and may be worn if necessary to protect the firefighter or Hazmat technician from fire and explosions. Over the years firefighters PPE has evolved from firefighters with regular clothes and wet rags wrapped around their mouth and nose to full turnouts and SCBA’s providing breathable air for as long as 45 minutes.
Technologies are improving everyday lowering the hazards of the firefighter. Some newer technologies include thermal imaging so a firefighter can see through a smoke engulfed room, or the SMART COAT system which incorporates sensors to help firefighters assess dangerous situations such as thermal saturation or the location of a colleague who may be injured. Although the technology of firefighter PPE has made leaps and bounds over the past century none of them could replace the most important part of the equation, a properly trained firefighter.