Protecting Firefighters

Issue 6 and Volume 18.

By Richard Marinucci

Today’s fire service offers more personal protective equipment (PPE) than ever before. This should not be a revelation to anyone in this business. Besides having more options, the standard protective equipment has continued to improve to offer a higher level of safety while still allowing firefighters to do the job. For example, turnout gear is lighter and more resistant to heat and has a better moisture barrier. Having the right tools is only part of the equation. Firefighters must accept the responsibility to not only use the equipment but use it properly.

Required and Enforced

I recently was in the locker room of a professional football team and I noticed a large poster that demonstrated the proper way to wear the uniform and pads. I wondered why this was necessary since all of the players have been in football most of their lives. I realized that the players need a reminder and probably will look for a shortcut if they think it gives them an advantage. As such, the league does its best to educate the players so that they get the maximum protection. Of course, the requirement to wear the equipment properly is mandated and the players are subject to fines if they deviate from the standard. Players in the National Football League (NFL) have the best safety equipment available yet will not necessarily embrace all of it unless forced to do so. Although education is a part of the strategy, enforcement is necessary. This seems like a good plan to follow with firefighters to make sure they are operating as safely as possible.

Departments must continually educate personnel on the value and use of safety equipment. Education may not be the only word to use-it could be nagging! Regardless, the purpose is to minimize the chance that complacency becomes the root cause of a preventable injury. Firefighters must continually be reminded to use their chin straps, cover exposed skin, wear their hoods, and have their gloves on. Why is it the responsibility of the leadership to do this when the firefighters should see the obvious advantage to their well-being? It is for the same reason the NFL feels it is important to continually remind its players to use their equipment.

But, continual reminders can only go so far. There must be consequences when all else fails. Football players are to wear the equipment as prescribed by the league. If not, they are subject to penalties that can hurt their team’s chances of winning and they can be fined, which hurts their pocketbooks. If an organization is really serious about an issue, it must be willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that its wishes are met.

Changing Mindsets

There are other things to consider. In previous occupations, I can recall workers disabling safety equipment-items designed to keep them from being injured. Occasionally someone would get hurt. Of course, it was never the worker’s fault! Now, I am not here to accuse anyone else in the fire service of blatantly disregarding safe working practices. But, I can say that maybe in my younger days, along with some of my coworkers, we may have taken shortcuts. Because of my age, I can be reasonably sure that the statute of limitations has passed. Looking at this experience, I know shortcuts could only be taken if the culture of the organization allowed it to happen. I believe that to be the case and know that it takes great effort to undo this line of thinking. It is worth the effort for the leadership of an organization to change the mindset of its members so that this is not acceptable.

Always a Chance for Injury

Even if all the PPE is worn correctly and all safety devices are used, there is still a chance for an injury. This can be minimized if the equipment is used as intended and operators are properly trained. This can become more challenging to departments as they now have many more options when choosing the right tool for the job, which requires more time to train. Sometimes assumptions are made that firefighters will just “figure out” how to use whatever is placed on the truck. Unfortunately, employees do not bring the same skill sets to the table and will not necessarily adapt as one might hope they would. Therefore, training is absolutely critical. There must be initial training when new equipment arrives, and refresher training must take place frequently enough to ensure members maintain their skills. The training must be in accordance with the manufacturers’ recommendations. This may be as simple as reading the owner’s manual or it may require special training from the manufacturer or its representative.

Maintain Equipment

Another factor that could contribute to an injury is the lack of equipment maintenance. This would apply to PPE as well as any equipment used by firefighters. Obviously, PPE that is torn or worn will not offer the protection it is designed to provide. Standards require regular inspection to identify deficiencies that would affect performance.

Power equipment must be in tune to function at its peak, and anything used to cut must be sharp. Occasionally, organizations neglect this because it is hard to get to every job because of the time needed to do everything. Regardless, to protect firefighters, every effort must be made to make sure everything is in the best condition possible. To go back to the football analogy, players don’t compete with torn chin straps or other flaws in their equipment.

Protecting Your Body

The last part of the discussion regarding protecting firefighters is physical fitness. No matter how good the equipment is, it cannot totally protect the user. Being fit for duty may be the most important part of the overall protection. It won’t matter how good the equipment is if the user is not in condition to use it. Firefighters know they are adding weight using turnout gear and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). They need to be in good physical condition to minimize the risks of the job.

There must be mandatory physical examinations, and personnel must commit to an exercise program that prepares them to do the job. This responsibility lies mostly with individuals, although departments must provide the leadership and support that will lead to success. Departments must fund physical examinations and work with all members of the organization to support exercise and wellness. This discussion can go even further to talk about diet and mental wellness. The overall health of firefighters is essential to support all of the safety advances made with equipment.

Firefighters who are properly protected are more likely to effect a positive outcome to emergencies. Organizations that are most successful at minimizing risk consider the total package regarding firefighter safety. This includes the best possible safety equipment for the individual, the right tools for the job, proper maintenance, training to use equipment correctly, and each firefighter’s overall wellness.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.