There’s More to PPE Than Just Having It

By Richard Marinucci

The personal protective equipment (PPE) firefighters wear today is arguably the best available in the history of the fire service. It is lighter and more comfortable and offers better protection. Manufacturers have done a great job developing and producing equipment that meets firefighters’ needs. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and its technical committees have also worked very hard, continually improving the standards so the maximum protection is available. Yet, there seems to be a love/hate relationship between firefighters and the gear that is supposed to protect them.

More Than Ownership

Owning or having access to the latest and greatest PPE does not guarantee improved safety and performance. Firefighters must wear the entire ensemble and wear it correctly. They must use it in all situations whether the threat appears small or large. Temporary lapses or complacency can be dangerous to organizations, and failing to use the necessary equipment every time could lead to serious injuries. This is a fact and few, if any, firefighters would dispute this if it were brought up in a logical discussion-especially if there were no emotions involved and the firefighters didn’t care if it somehow made them seem less macho.

To realize the full benefit of PPE, the entire organization must be committed to its use-from the fire chief to the newest member. Using it cannot be something that is talked about and formalized in a procedure but forgotten out in the real world of firefighting. The organization needs to address cultural issues, training, and finances if it really wants to protect its firefighters. Although overall fire service commitment has greatly improved, there is still long way to go.

Organizational Culture

Perhaps the most important aspect of PPE usage is an individual’s or an organization’s culture. Before we write this off as something unique to firefighters or a purely macho issue, consider some other perspectives.

First, think of how you use safety equipment when not on the job. I must confess that I don’t always use the safety equipment I have at home. Even though it is printed in the literature that comes with whatever tool I am using, I often don’t use the safety equipment recommended by the manufacturer. I don’t wear safety glasses every time I use my grinder. I rarely wear a helmet when riding my bike-usually just when I want to set a good example for my children. I haven’t really analyzed this, but I don’t believe it is a macho thing because usually nobody is watching. It might be laziness. It could be that I don’t think anything could go wrong. Of course, this defies logic because no one plans to have an accident. If others in the fire service do the same, then it is possible that they carry these habits over to the job. It might not be just an organizational culture issue but part of human nature. Regardless, fire departments must overcome this thought process.

Looking at this from another perspective, consider PPE used in contact sports. Some senior members of the fire service might remember playing little league baseball without wearing a helmet or wearing one that didn’t offer much protection. Over time, the quality of the helmets improved, and all players must use one; there is no choice. If you consider sports at the highest level, PPE has improved dramatically, but it hasn’t necessarily been readily accepted by the players. Professional hockey players who began their careers without helmets were grandfathered and not required to wear the helmets later. As rookies entered the league, it mandated helmets. Today, all players wear helmets. However, even though protective face shields are available, and wearing one would greatly reduce the chances of eye and facial injuries, many players elect not to because they think it might affect performance. Perhaps some of fire service’s resistance is related to this line of thinking.

Another contact sport offers insight into changing culture through administration and mandates. Injuries in professional football are very common. The National Football League has taken action to improve the safety of its players wherever possible. The equipment used today is top of the line. But, players looking for an edge sometimes opt not to use what is intended to protect them. To address this, the league mandates the use of specific protective equipment. It educates players, continually reminding them of what is required and the proper way to use the equipment. It follows that up with enforcement when players don’t follow the rules. Although football is not firefighting, imagine the progress that could be made if fire departments mandated and enforced proper use of PPE. There would be few options available, and the cultural issues would be addressed.

Know How to Use It

Training is absolutely essential. The better firefighters are at using equipment, the more likely they will use it every time because they become more comfortable and confident. They are less apt to resist using it for performance reasons. As they get better, the excuse that they are not as efficient or effective becomes moot. The training must include proper use of the equipment and sufficient practice so using it is second nature.

Another issue to consider with training is adapting different methods when firefighting. For example, many firefighters have lamented using hoods and ear flaps because they are unable to use their ears as “thermometers.” They say that the protection gets them into situations that are very dangerous because they did not recognize the dangers present early enough. To counter that, training must provide alternative means to detect dangers so that firefighters are confident they will know when to change their tactics. Departments must consider all of these factors whenever new and improved PPE is introduced.

Financial Implications

The last issue to consider is financial. Unless you have been living under a rock or on Mars, you know that most local governmental entities continue to face tough economic times. One of the fallouts of this is postponing purchases. Departments in need are unable to acquire PPE that meets current standards because of their budget constraints. This is unfortunate. Somehow, fire departments must convince those that set policy and approve funding that they cannot postpone firefighter safety. I realize this is sometimes easier said than done. But to demonstrate commitment, organizations must establish the proper priorities. Failure to properly protect firefighters is not an option.

PPE alone does not improve safety and performance. The entire organization must commit to its acquisition and proper use. Personnel must obtain the knowledge needed to work safely while delivering the service their communities expect. Firefighters must not get complacent and think that accidents cannot happen to them. Fire departments must fight for the resources that protect firefighters. Once they have the tools, they need to train their firefighters and strictly enforce policies. Football and hockey players are not using equipment from 30 years ago. Neither should firefighters.

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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