Optional PPE: A Cultural Sign

Why is personal protective equipment optional… for some that is? We have all seen it. Whether volunteer or career, often a few of the players on the field aren’t dressed for the game. Oh, they may have on the helmet, maybe the coat, but the rest of the costume (PPE ensemble) is missing. The wearing of PPE, or lack thereof, and the proper wearing of PPE is one of the most visible signs of a department’s organizational safety culture.

Speaking of culture, it’s a good time to remember the Life Safety Initiatives developed almost six years ago. Number one:  “Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety; incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility.”

The life safety initiatives were developed by a group of over 200 fire service personnel who gathered in Tampa in March 2004. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation hosted the summit as the first step in a major campaign. In cooperation with the U.S. Fire Administration, the foundation established the objectives of reducing the fatality rate by 25 percent within 5 years and by 50 percent within 10 years. The purpose of the summit was to produce an agenda of initiatives that must be addressed to reach those milestones and to gain the commitment of the fire service leadership to support and work toward their accomplishment.
Obviously the 5-year goal was not met.  

Dramatic Improvements

With all the advocacy stuff going on, why do we still have an issue with proper wearing of PPE? Some of the most frequent reasons stated are:  it’s too hot; it’s too heavy; it’s too restrictive; or it’s too bulky. Yet the industry has developed lighter-weight PPE, more breathable PPE, and designs that allow for better weight distribution and mobility. Though these improvements taken over a generation have been incremental, they have been quite dramatic. A few of us remember the old steel SCBA bottles, non-breathable moisture barriers, a choice of medium/large/extra large in coats and pants and “one-size fits all” heavy rubber boots with tiny heels.

What’s the response to PPE complaints? Get over it, wear it and move on. Barring a major technological breakthrough, these complaints will probably be heard 30 years from now.    

Jim Juneau, the well-known personal injury lawyer, made quite an impression on the audience with his presentation at last year’s inaugural PPE Symposium in Charlotte. He showed several memorable videos, including:
     1.  Part of a chimney falling and almost striking three firefighters, two of whom were not wearing helmets. For some reason, they thought being on the exterior kept them out of harm’s way.
     2.  A firefighter climbing an aerial ladder, without his turnout coat and SCBA, to take a pike pole to the roof crew. Once he gets to the top, the roof “opens up” and he is engulfed in flames. With his upper torso burning, he almost falls off the aerial as he scampers back down. The video clip concludes with a shot of third-degree burns on his upper body.  He was likely operating at the turntable. He was simply going to take a piece of equipment up and return quickly – something he had probably done several times in the past. It should be noted that another firefighter in full PPE was following him up the aerial.
     3.  A fire department staff person arrives in a staff vehicle at the scene of a small house on fire. He walks to the rear corner of the house for a rear view and then turns around and walks back toward his staff vehicle.  Three seconds later, there is an explosion and fire fills the area where he turned around. He was wearing no PPE at all.

Juneau also showed a couple of video clips of “success” stories while wearing all PPE. In one, a firefighter is operating on an aerial platform that suddenly becomes engulfed in flames. He walks away with only minor burns. In another, a recruit is learning to use a K-12. The fuel cap is not on, and suddenly the firefighter is standing in a pool of burning gasoline. He was wearing all of his PPE and was not injured. This was a training evolution that could have been done without PPE. However, despite the hot summer sun, this department always required full PPE in all of its hands-on training evolutions.  

Liability: A Wake-Up Call

Jim Juneau’s presentation was based on the risks and the outcomes from failure to properly wear PPE. In the event of an injury or death, the liability falls on the firefighter, the firefighter’s crew leader (captain), the incident commander, the fire chief, the fire department and the community. Juneau stressed that in a court of law, standards rule. To many in the audience, this was a wake-up call. 
The National Fire Protection Association has several standards that pertain to PPE, and every firefighter and fire department should be familiar with them. However, an often overlooked PPE standard is NFPA 1500, which relates to occupational safety and health. Chapter 7 of 1500 is solely dedicated to protective clothing and equipment. The first two requirements are very straightforward:
     • 7.1.1  The fire department shall provide each member with protective clothing and protective equipment that is designed to provide protection from the hazards to which the member is likely to be exposed and is suitable for the tasks that the member is expected to perform.
    • 7.1.2  Protective clothing and protective equipment shall be used whenever the member is exposed or potentially exposed to the hazards for which it is provided.
The words “potentially exposed” are the key to premise of this column. 

My office happens to be adjacent to the construction site of a 12-story building. I have noticed that everyone within the fenced area of the construction zone is always wearing a hardhat and safety vest. Failure to comply must be very severe, as there are never any exceptions. Yet, in our paramilitary organizations, we can find exceptions to our PPE usage on a regular basis. How is that?

Properly Worn

The words “properly worn” have been used a few times. This is by intent, as wearing PPE and properly wearing PPE are two distinct issues.  How many times have you seen the helmet chinstrap positioned 180 degrees away from the chin? And in at least one metro department, it became a “fad” to leave the waist belt of the SCBA unbuckled. Yes, this was being done by people old enough to vote and have a driver’s license. (Every company needs at least one designated adult.)

Good leaders in the fire service enforce strict adherence to properly wearing PPE.  I am reminded of a firefighter line-of-duty death investigation that revealed only four firefighters on the scene had their PASS devices activated. (This was prior to integrated PASS with SCBA.)  The four firefighters were from the same company.  When quizzed about their PASS devices, they all said their captain would “whoop our ass” if they didn’t turn them on. Further investigation revealed that this captain had the longest list of firefighters wanting to transfer to his company of any company in the very large department.  That captain had the “cultural” thing the way it should be.

Editor’s Note: Robert Tutterow, who has 30 years in the fire service, is the Charlotte (N.C.) Fire Department health and safety officer. He is a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Department Apparatus Committee and is on two other NFPA committees, the Structural and Proximity Firefighting Protective Ensemble Technical Committee and the Technical Correlating Committee for Fire and Emergency Services PPE.

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