Head To Toe PPE – It Just Makes Sense

“If you want to get just a little burned … you have never been burned.” Those are the words of a firefighter who was burned at a dwelling fire and spent weeks in the burn unit. “Ever had your burned skin scraped off?” Those are the words of another firefighter who also spent time in a burn unit.

From head injuries and respiratory injuries to burn injuries, any member of the fire service who has experienced one will be the first to tell you, it just isn’t worth it.

Some have described it as “hell” – literally. And the lucky ones get to remain alive. Are we kidding? Find out for yourself. Just go to Google and look at “firefighters burned.”

Can’t find enough information to understand the serious issues related to firefighters not using their personal protective equipment (PPE) and getting burned? Take a look at the incredible work the People’s Burn Foundation has done on its “To Hell And Back” firefighter series: http://www.peoplesburnfoundation.org/tohellandback/preview

The best way to avoid any of your members going through any of the above horrors is three-fold.

First, the department must be serious about making sure that its specifications reflect the needs within the organization. Whether your firefighters go to one structural fire a year or a thousand, they need the best possible protection.

Risk Of Getting Hurt

The theory that a department, which does not respond to many fires, can get by with the cheapest and most basic gear is like saying if your car isn’t driven very often, you need fewer safety features. Yes, statistically, your frequency of risk is limited, but once you do have a fire, the chance of your firefighters getting hurt is equal – or it may even be greater. How? Some believe in the theory that if you go on more calls, you have more experience and that experience equals a better understanding of what can go wrong. And that makes sense.

What does your department purchase? Is it off-the-shelf S, M, L, XL, XXL or XXXL? That may be fine if you are buying jeans, but when the only thing between you and the fire is your gear, wouldn’t you want custom-fitted and well-spec’d bunker gear offering you the best protection?

Is funding an issue? As one old timer once said, “We can do without a few bells and whistles on the rigs and we can keep some older furniture in the firehouse, but if our commissioner doesn’t think we should get the best bunker gear made, what does that say about him? And him taking care of us?”

In other words, if your city has its priorities straight, it won’t buy the cheapest bulletproof vests for the cops – or the cheapest bunker gear for the firefighters.

History has shown numerous  problems with buying low-bid, off-the-shelf gear or custom-fitted gear offering limited protection. Sure, it may meet NFPA specs, but what do you want to be wearing? Materials are available to any gear manufacturer, however safety features go beyond materials to the patents and the manufacturing processes.

Will gear always save a firefighter from injury or death? Unfortunately, no. But doing your homework and participating intelligently in the spec’ing process can go a long way in helping firefighters survive.

The second way you and your department can avoid the horrors of firefighter injuries and death is to wear your gear. Simply put, firefighters should never operate with any exposed skin, which means PPE head to toe when working in or near environments that will burn you.

Additionally, keep in mind that your PPE also protects you from smoke. Why is smoke so bad? In addition to inhalation concerns, smoke can be directly absorbed into your skin – and that can lead to cancer.

Exposure To Carcinogens

In late 2006 University of Cincinnati health researchers determined that firefighters are significantly more likely to develop four different types of cancer than workers in other fields. Their findings suggest that the protective equipment used in the past didn’t do a good job in protecting firefighters against cancer-causing agents. Additionally, firefighters failing to use the gear as it was designed contributed to the problem.

The researchers found that firefighters are twice as likely to develop testicular cancer, have significantly higher rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and prostate cancer than non-firefighters and are at greater risk for multiple myeloma.

Their findings were reported in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

On the job, firefighters are exposed to many compounds designated as carcinogens, substances that can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin and occur both at the scene of a fire and in the firehouse, including benzene, diesel engine exhaust, chloroform, soot, styrene and formaldehyde.

The researchers analyzed information from 32 previously published scientific studies on 110,000 firefighters, most of them full-time, white male workers, to determine health effects and cancer risks.

Soot Is Absorbed

“There’s a critical and immediate need for additional protective equipment to help firefighters avoid inhalation and skin exposures to known and suspected occupational carcinogens,” said James Lockey, one of the researchers and a professor of environmental health and pulmonary medicine at UC. “In addition, firefighters should meticulously wash their entire body to remove soot and other residues from fires to avoid skin exposure.”

While for years we knew not to breathe that stuff (even though many of us did and still do for whatever ridiculous reason), we never gave much thought to our skin being covered with soot. But when you understand the problem, you learn that the soot is absorbed into our skin. That information is a bit scary. Think of how many times we have been covered in soot and actually felt good about it. How many times have we gone back to sleep after a run, thinking we would just clean up better in the morning? While we were sleeping, what was that soot doing? Becoming a part of us.

We can help avoid this nightmare by wearing what is required and taking care of that equipment. Inside of every set of gear are clear instructions on how to keep the gear clean and working effectively. All we have to do is actually want to use it and keep it ready. Perhaps the above information will serve as a motivator? Why would any of us want to get sick?

The third solution in avoiding these life altering problems in having members fully trained in the use of their gear, written policies dictating how and when PPE will be used and most critically, fire officers who understand that they must enforce the policies.

A good policy is helpful, but it means nothing if firefighters don’t understand that it is the law. The wearing of your PPE is not an option. It is a requirement no different than the requirement that a pro football player be fully “dressed” when entering the field. The only difference is that firefighters are placed in life-and-death risks – and there are no “time-outs.”

The PPE policy must be enforced equally across the entire department by fire officers who understand that it is their job. An officer who lacks the courage to enforce policies has failed in the top responsibility of any fire officer – and that is to take care of your firefighters.

We have focused mostly on structural firefighting., but PPE applies in USAR operations and EMS incidents, as well as wildland fires. Firefighters lose their lives each year in rescue operations, EMS calls (including infectious disease contraction) and wildland incidents.

Editor’s Note: Will Grilliot has been active in the fire service since 2002 and is a member of the West Milton (Ohio) Fire Department. He is a certified Level II Firefighter/Hazmat Operations Technican. Since 1996 he has been with Total Fire Group/Morning Pride, where he oversees inventory and distribution operations. He represents the fourth generation of his family managing the company.

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