Better Equipment Equals Safer Firefighters

Beloit College in Wisconsin publishes a Mindset List every year to raise awareness of the changing backgrounds of its incoming freshmen. It will list things that were never part of their lives, such as cassette tapes, and things they have always had, like smart phones. A similar list of things that exist today but were unavailable to previous recruits, as well as things no longer in use, could be made for incoming firefighters. These things have changed, or should have changed, the way things are done in this business.

Not Like Old Times

Today, we have a generation of firefighters who do not know what red ball fire gloves are, have always been in turnout pants (not ¾-height boots), have been issued a hood, and have always had self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) as part of their basic safety equipment. These and other improvements have been made to increase firefighter safety. Although it is fun to reminisce and talk of tradition, it is also important to make sure that current changes are promoting the desired effects–better service and better protection.

Prior to improvements in personal protective equipment (PPE), many firefighters had scars on unprotected areas of their bodies. These areas included the outside of the body (such as exposed ears), under their gear when embers could fall down the back of the jacket, or even inside the ¾-height boots. The inside of the body, specifically the lungs, could also suffer because SCBA was not part of the standard PPE issue. Leather lungs cannot be applied to today’s firefighters. The sacrifices of many from previous generations have led to the great improvements in protection for those entering the profession.

To maximize the improvements’ benefits, there must be adjustments in training and firefighters’ attitudes. For example, any firefighter entering the fire service today has always had to use seatbelts with shoulder harnesses. Yet there are tragedies today that could have been prevented had seatbelts been used at the time of the crash or rollover. This attitude must be changed with every firefighter to eliminate needless deaths.

Training Is Critical

Part of any system involving firefighter safety improvement must include adjustments to training programs. Firefighters must learn the proper way to use the equipment, how to wear it, and how it may affect their tactics. The mere fact of having the equipment will not change outcomes. It begins with the simple premise that when a department issues new equipment, there must be a lesson on proper use and maintenance of it. How often do you and your organization distribute new equipment to firefighters without taking the time to review its features or the manufacturer’s recommendations? For example, a helmet may be issued. Often, all the manufacturer’s instruction and warnings are immediately discarded without any review. The firefighters continue to use the equipment just as they had previously, even if there are added features.

A training program for all firefighters should include the following:

• Continual review of building construction. Knowledge of the building is extremely important to best prepare for the hostile environment created by fire.

• Learn to read the smoke. Dave Dodson has done a tremendous job of explaining this process. It is imperative that all firefighters understand this so they can assess situations and not rely on the temperature reading of their ears.

• Use thermal imaging cameras (TICs) as part of every fire call. They need to become a routine part of the response. Firefighters must know how they work and how they should be used during an incident. This technology can also provide great insight into developing conditions.

• Study fire behavior. The science of fire is expanding. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) are providing more insight into fire behavior in newer buildings with lightweight construction and different contents. Never stop learning, because fire behavior will continue to change.

• Train with your gear as you will wear it during a fire emergency. Many firefighters do not wear their equipment properly during training, either because it is not always comfortable or it is not “cool.” There is a saying that you will play how you practice. Get comfortable in your gear and wear it properly all the time.

• As part of the training, review the manufacturer’s recommendations from time to time.

Tactical Considerations

One area that has been slow to catch up to the changes in PPE is the effect using it has on tactical considerations. This is also related to training. You probably still hear firefighters lament about not being able to use their ears as thermometers. The hood and the rest of the ensemble are so much better at shielding firefighters from some of the heat that they occasionally get into conditions they shouldn’t because they did not realize how hot things were. They were unable to feel the heat until they were in trouble. To address this, some have intentionally exposed skin so they can have a little warning. This is akin to something I remember the late Tom Brennan, former editor of Fire Engineering, telling me. He said we should just attach an M-80 firecracker to the helmet. When it explodes, it is too hot and time to exit. Obviously this was said tongue in cheek but the question is: Why would we want to damage our skin or ears by unnecessarily exposing them to extremely high temperatures? The real solution is to adjust training to teach firefighters different ways to recognize when conditions are nearing an untenable atmosphere.

More and more information is coming about the changes in the types of fires being fought today compared to just a few years ago. Plastics contribute to fires that burn hotter. Studies by UL and NIST confirm what firefighters have suspected–that temperatures are increasing and flashovers occur sooner. Coupled with modern construction techniques, the environment in which firefighters work today is different. Departments must adjust training to compensate for these changes so incoming firefighters, as well as incumbents, are properly prepared for the challenges that they face.

There has been a rather rapid evolution in PPE and related equipment during the past 20 years or so. Turnout clothing not only is better made for the heat elements but also addresses moisture issues from the inside. Gloves are better suited for the job being performed. If you have not done so, it is a good time to review these improvements and make sure all your firefighters understand the right way to use the equipment and to consistently follow proper procedures. If you are careless even one time, it could be the wrong time.

Do Your Part

There is no doubt that PPE improvements, SCBA, and the more routine use of TICs enhance firefighter safety. Firefighters need to do their part to make sure they are getting maximum protection by knowing what the equipment will and won’t do. They also need to adjust their behavior accordingly. If feeling the heat was truly a good practice, then maybe we should have moved toward less PPE–then you would get really early warnings and not get into places you shouldn’t be; this would not be good. The best option is to protect yourself with the best equipment and learn to operate in a way that allows you to best do your job while minimizing the risks.

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 three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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