Since Nov. 24, 2008, all first responders, including firefighters, are subject to a worker visibility regulation from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).
The "Worker Visibility Final Rule" states: "All workers within the right-of-way of a federal-aid highway who are exposed either to traffic (vehicles using the highway for purposes of travel) or to construction equipment within the work area shall wear high-visibility safety apparel."
High-visibility safety apparel means personal protective safety clothing that is intended to provide conspicuity during daytime and nighttime usage and that meets the Performance Class 2 or 3 requirements of the ANSI/ISEA 107-2004 publication entitled, "American National Standard for High-Visibility Safety Apparel and Headwear."
The rule goes on to state that the compliant garments should be labeled ANSI/ISEA 107-2004 or ANSI/SEA 207-2006. The vests should use fluorescent yellow-green, orange-red or red background material with 360-degree retro-reflective visibility.
While this is a new rule in the U.S., our brothers and sisters in Europe have been following this practice for years. Airport and roadway workers throughout Europe, as well as first responders, wear reflective clothing while working. A further precaution in Europe requires reflective vests to be carried in passenger cars to be worn in the event of a breakdown in the roadway. Cars are required to have the vests in the vehicle, and if the driver or and occupant has to get out and change a flat tire, they are required to wear the vest.
For years we've been purchasing vests for mass casualty incidents and traffic control situations that in many cases satisfy these requirements. The new rule addresses the need for vigilance towards the safety of first responders at road traffic events.
If you were to look at a typical European traffic scene you would find it awash in lights reflecting off the clothing worn by first responders. While the new rule discusses vests to be worn over our typical response clothing, in Europe, the every day apparel of responders uses reflective materials. Even T-shirts have reflective striping.
In interpreting the new rule, officials make allowances for firefighters in direct contact with flames by allowing them not to wear vests that may be flammable. Other considerations are made in providing access to tool belts that might be obstructed by reflective vests.
The U.S. Fire Administration Web site says, "Firefighters directly engaged in fire suppression should not wear traffic safety vests, as they could potentially catch fire or melt if exposed to flame."
The FHWA rule allows firefighters involved in suppression to wear retro-reflective protective clothing that is specified and regulated by other organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association or the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The USFA goes on to state: "While this new regulation applies only to responses on federally-funded highways, USFA highly recommends that all firefighters and first responders wear ANSI/ISEA-compliant highway safety vests while working on any incident on the roadway."
Invisible Without Vests
All of us understand the hazards of working on our roadways. We do much of our work at night, and if we are not highly visible, we are at risk from passing traffic. Even with all the flashing lights at the scene, those of us not wearing reflective gear are virtually invisible to passing traffic.
Also consider that drivers passing us may be distracted by the lights and the elements at the scene. We also need to consider that as late night moves toward early morning, the likelihood increases that drivers are impaired.
Consider The Intent
While we can argue exemptions for having to wear the vests, we should consider the intent of the rule to protect all first responders. We can purchase appropriate gear that satisfies the ANSI/ISEA standards so that whether you are wearing turnout gear, a jacket, coat or the vest, we are highly visible to give us our best chances at coming home safely.
Take a look, evaluate your department's clothing, and work to protect yourselves. It makes sense. I've followed the European model and placed a vest in my wife's car too.
To view the rule, use this link: http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2008/E8-27671.htm
Editor's Note: Will Chapleau, who has 30 years of EMS experience, is the Advanced Trauma Life Support (ATLS) program manager for the American College of Surgeons. He is the former chief of the Chicago Heights (Ill.) Fire Department, has served since 1996 as the chairperson for the Prehospital Trauma Life Support (PHTLS) program of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians and has been a member of its international faculty since 1984. He is a board member of the National Association of EMS Educators.