For the majority of my career, I’ve worn three types of personal protective equipment (PPE): traditional turnout or bunker gear, a racing firesuit for motorsports fire and rescue, and traditional United States Forest Service (USFS) green Nomex® pants and yellow Nomex long sleeve shirt for wildland fire responses.
During the heat of the summer and early fall, we all know what a thermal challenge traditional turnout gear is to wear on extended extrication or other technical rescue calls. For those of us assigned to areas where we have water or swiftwater rescue calls, we also understand the potential danger posed by our trusted turnout gear.
Departments in some parts of the country have the luxury of outfitting their personnel in separate structural turnout gear, technical rescue gear, and wildland gear depending on the type of call. Many of us don’t have that luxury or budget and are fortunate to afford one set of traditional turnouts for each member. In my volunteer department, our structural turnouts are expected to do just about everything in the same ways apparatus are. Rural or volunteer departments don’t all have engine companies, truck companies, and rescue companies. The reality is that in many cases, one type of apparatus is asked to “do it all.” But, are we doing ourselves any favors when it comes to our PPE? Might we be prematurely wearing out our structural turnouts? Am I subjecting my personnel-and my budget-to unnecessary stressors, both heat and physical? I went on the hunt for possible alternatives and was surprised by what I found.
Most wildland firefighting gear on the market today that is compliant with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1977, Standard on Protective Clothing and Equipment for Wildland Fire Fighting, is only suited for wildland responses. Wildland gear, by design, does not typically have the properties needed to be a good option for technical rescue, nor does it typically meet NFPA 1951, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Technical Rescue Incidents. One of the problems I have with the standard USFS wildland gear is being able to visually identify my fire department personnel from the other hundreds of firefighters all dressed the same on campaign fires where we, the local fire department, are assigned to structure protection on a regular basis.
Technical rescue or urban search and rescue (USAR) gear, on the other hand, has come a long way over the years. Originally a single-layer Nomex jumpsuit- or flightsuit-type of garment, technical rescue gear now comes in a variety of fabrics with dozens of options. Unfortunately, the price point of many of these ensembles makes them cost-prohibitive for many departments.
One of the companies I spoke with has a product that it feels addresses a number of these concerns that I found intriguing. I asked Todd Herring, vice president of fire service products at Ashburn Hill Corp., about the concerns and challenges I raise in this article. He offered the following information on TECGEN XTREME® fabric and gear, which I found very relevant to the topic of this article.
Meeting Multiple Standards
TECGEN XTREME fabric complies with NFPA 1951 and NFPA 1977, so it can be used on many of the typical calls a department responds to. Wearing these types of garments instead of traditional bunker gear can help extend the life of bunker gear and reduce the cleaning and repair costs associated with the requirements of NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care and Maintenance of Structural Fire Fighting Protective Ensembles. “We feel this combination of certifications is one of the key differentiators of our garments,” says Herring.
TECGEN® fabrics are made with patented TECGEN biregional fiber. It has a carbon shell around a viscoelastic core, allowing it to perform like typical carbon fibers under thermal loads, but is not brittle like typical carbon fibers. “This allows us to engineer in levels of thermal and radiant heat protection that far exceed the standards while keeping the overall garment weight low for comfort,” says Herring. “It also allows us to design the fabric in a way that maximizes the total heat loss (THL) performance, allowing your body to naturally cool itself during strenuous physical activity.” These technical characteristics culminate into a garment that is light and breathable, according to Herring, yet still offers advanced protection from heat sources firefighters may encounter on the job.
Many of the technical rescue ensembles currently available are great products but are ultimately priced too high for the typical volunteer or combination fire department’s budget. “Because of our vertical manufacturing structure-fiber to garments-we can offer a product with advanced protection and multiple [standard compliance] at a price point similar to premium wildland gear, adds Herring. “This makes it much easier for departments in tough times to justify the investment, which can now easily pay for itself through reduced wear and tear on turnout gear.”
This conversation led me to think beyond the original intent of my hunt for alternatives to traditional turnout gear. Are there ensembles on the market today my nonstructural firefighting personnel can use instead of turnouts? In the same way that we have to tailor training to meet the needs of our personnel and the department, might we also need to look at tailoring the PPE to the personnel and their respective assignments?
These issues are typically of little concern to many municipal departments. For the hundreds of struggling volunteer and combination departments across the country, however, these types of PPE may be another option that we can use to try to maximize our budget dollars while protecting our most valuable assets: our fire, rescue, and EMS personnel.
CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He serves as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.