Safety: Equipment Improvement

Robert Rutterow

In my past two columns, I provided a quote from Glen Usdin, a former magazine publisher, that states, “The fire service is a low-tech market that has zero potential for growth, and the amount of new products and services being introduced each year is very small. We keep our expensive stuff for a long time, don’t really embrace much new technology ….”

I found this comment to be humbling as it was something I have never considered.

Personal Protective Equipment

When I step back to my first experiences in the fire service as a kid in the late 1950s, I can easily see changes everywhere. Firefighters had virtually no personal protective equipment (PPE). The only items available were plastic raincoats, thin plastic helmets, and rubber gloves and boots. There was no self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). The objective was to stay dry.

If there is one item that is predominantly a fire service product, it is the PASS device. Other than two-way radios and handlights, it can be said that the PASS device ushered in the era of electronics on the fireground. PASS devices started to emerge in the mid 1980s as standalone products. Today, most PASS devices are integrated into SCBA. Steady and incremental improvements in PASS devices have continued for the past 30 years.

Our SCBA has probably seen the most advancement of any part of our PPE ensemble. Early versions consisted of heavy steel bottles and demand-only belt-mounted regulators. Today, the industry standard is lighter-weight composite bottles, positive-pressure face-mounted regulators, and nose cups. Electronics have led to heads-up displays.

PPE Materials

Our protective fabrics have certainly come a long way. Inherently flame-resistant fabrics and breathable moisture barriers have provided significant improvements in flame and heat protection. We have seen incremental improvements in thermal barriers and improved garment patterns.

Our footwear is transformed from “one size fits all” rubber boots and hip boots to a more athletic fit of leather boots. Our Red Ball rubber gloves have given way to better fitting, moisture-barrier-lined, primarily leather gloves. Helmets, well … that’s a story for another time.

Thermal Imaging cameras

Arguably, the most important technological advancement has been with thermal imaging cameras (TICs). Although not considered by most a PPE component, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) requirements for them fall within its Fire and Emergency Services Personal Protective Clothing and Equipment Project. As with most electronic equipment, the pace of advancements and the subsequent reduction in costs have been quite rapid. We must keep in mind that our thermal imaging technology is borrowed primarily from the military and other industries. However, the fire service can be proud that, through the NFPA, it has prompted the industry to develop much more robust TICs than found in other applications. I foresee a fireground where their use is greatly expanded as we learn more about fire behavior.

ROle of Electronics

Electronics will continue to be the venue for technological advancements in PPE. Hopefully, the industry is not too far from having reliable and affordable physiological monitoring (breathing rate, heart rate, blood pressure, body core temperature, and so on) as well as a firefighter locator system. I envision an incident management system that has an on-scene management structure and a supplemental off-scene component of the command structure-perhaps at the communications center. The supplemental off-scene component would be responsible for the “bird’s-eye” view of the physiological monitoring, firefighter locator system, and time remaining in the breathing air cylinder. Note that I use the term “time remaining” rather than percentage of air remaining in the bottle. The time would be calculated based on the breathing rate.

Changes for the Good

There have clearly been improvements in many of our products. Positive-pressure fans-i.e. blowers-have primarily replaced the old smoke ejectors. Cotton hose is no longer used, and we have no need for hose towers, hose dryers, or a spare load of hose. Large-diameter hose for supply lines is now the norm.

All of our equipment is distinct in that it has to be rugged-i.e. “firefighterproof.” I always take note when I see an advertisement for a consumer product that references the fire service. And, I often wonder why this is not more prevalent.

It is my observation that most of the changes we’ve seen in the fire service have been driven in various degrees by NFPA standards. And yet, many of these standards were received with lots of “kicking and screaming” from the fire service.

So what has all this change meant? The recent declines in line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) (2013 excluded) and injuries seem to correspond directly to the reduction in the number of fires. It appears Glenn Usdin’s comments are accurate. However, if we if we never adapted or changed, I think our LODDs and injuries would have skyrocketed. The implications are disturbing.

ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).

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