Finding Right Technical Rescue PPE for the Job

Chris Mc Loone

Most firefighters who also perform rescue functions, such as vehicle rescue, wear the same personal protective equipment (PPE) that they use for firefighting-and with good reason. If a vehicle rescue becomes a vehicle fire unexpectedly, personnel should have the proper protection. During the winter months, operating at an extrication with structural turnout gear is tolerable. During the dog days of summer, fatigue sets in quickly if personnel sport bulky structural gear. So, there are a variety of reasons to select a second set of PPE for rescue incidents, particularly technical rescue incidents. That said, there is no broad-based technical rescue PPE that is suitable in some way for any specialized rescue you might encounter.

Technical Rescue PPE Types

PPE for tech rescue is not as easy to spec because there are various disciplines and there is gear to fit each. Bob Hnatko, commercial program director and a partner at Spec-Rescue, says that departments should spec out tech rescue PPE that is “appropriate for the type of technical rescue that they are engaging in because different types of technical rescue are going to require different types of PPE. You’re not going to wear the same protective garment for rope rescue that you’re going to use for abrasion resistance when crawling in a confined space. There are multiple subsets of PPE for tech rescue.” Examples he cites are ensembles that are similar to bunker gear (they include jackets and pants) but are marketed as technical rescue gear. “They’re very good for confined space work, very good for vehicle rescue, good for some trench work, things like that,” says Hnatko. “But they’re too bulky to be used in the realm of rope rescue.” Hnatko also says that a one-piece coverall works very well in some situations, but that there is no real universal tech rescue gear and reiterates that the gear depends on what operations you’re going into. “If you’re getting into a structural collapse operation, and depending on the environment you’re in, that heavier PPE isn’t going to be very advantageous to you whereas something like what the USAR teams use is more appropriate.

Dan DiRenzo, managing member of Safety & Survival Training, LLC, agrees that the selection of PPE for technical rescue depends on the type of incident to which you’re responding and that there isn’t really a “one size fits all” gear that transcends all rescue incidents. “It all depends on the situation. Normally, you’re going to have personnel that wear BDU-style pants and shirt. Some departments will go with a jumpsuit. What you see now is lightweight USAR PPE with the pants and a coat. So as far as attire, that’s what your options are. And, the situation will determine what you wear,” he says. “As far as helmets, many departments are going with some type of protective helmet that is lightweight with a headlamp. For footwear, there are USAR-rated boots that firefighters are wearing as well.”

Hnatko notes that in certain types of arenas, construction type clothing can provide almost better cut resistance. “In situations like trench rescue or structural collapse, where you’re dealing with high levels of abrasion, some of those garments are actually better. But, it’s what the agency having jurisdiction deems appropriate for you.”

Firefighting vs. Tech Rescue PPE

Although structural firefighting turnout gear is often worn for incidents like vehicle rescue, there are very important differences between PPE that is designed for firefighting vs. technical rescue. “The number one difference is going to be the thermal protection barrier,” says Hnatko. “Because we’re not doing structural firefighting, that thermal barrier is going to be the big difference. You’re still going to have a fire-resistive or noncombustible shell to the outside of it. And, it’s going to have somewhat of a vapor barrier associated with it if it’s one of the technical rescue type ensembles.” He adds that the one-piece PPE often does not come with a moisture barrier and is basically an outer protective garment.

According to Kurt Braunle, president of START Rescue Training, Inc., the difference between firefighting PPE and technical rescue PPE is that it is situation-dependent-i.e., rope rescue, confined space rescue, swiftwater rescue, and so on. “In many cases, the gear is much lighter weight and designed to be worn for longer periods of time vs. firefighting PPE that may only be needed for about an hour during many interior firefighting incidents,” he says. “Just like wildland firefighting PPE, where it is lightweight for long-duration operations, it provides some form of protection against a possible flash fire exposure.”

According to DiRenzo, “As far as the gear itself, they’ve taken the thermal layer out. They’ve decreased the weight and made it more flexible for personnel to operate long term or in tight, confined areas.” Reducing the weight figures into firefighter health and safety. “It allows the firefighters to operate longer. They have less weight carried on them.”

Get Two Sets?

PPE, no matter the type, is not an inexpensive investment. Given the various types of technical rescue to which a department might respond, buying PPE for each discipline may not be feasible. One way to approach this decision, according to DiRenzo, is to base it on the group’s level of expertise. “It all depends on what level of rescue service they are providing,” he says. “Are they providing full blown technician level rescue services or are they doing operations level? If you have personnel who are full blown technician class, then you’re going to want them to have that PPE.”

One reason to invest in the second set of PPE specifically for technical rescue is “the wear and tear that you subject structural firefighting turnout gear to in nonstructural firefighting applications,” says Hnatko. “Something as simple as petroleum products from a vehicle accident on turnout gear, if it’s not washed and laundered properly between calls, allows firefighters to enter a structure fire with these chemicals on their turnout gear. The other is cuts, tears, and abrasions from working around a vehicle extrication that go unnoticed.” He explains that this creates a situation where a firefighter could enter a structure fire with a gap in his protective ensemble. “One of the things my department has looked at is how much wear and tear our turnout gear experiences by folks not having what we call USAR gear.”

The biggest advantage to having gear specifically for technical rescue, according to Hnatko, is the wear and tear saved on the more expensive structural firefighting gear. “The other side of it is if you don’t need that thermal protection, you’re saving a lot in heat retention,” he adds. “So, you’re not subjecting yourself to higher thermal body temperatures when it’s not necessary.”

DiRenzo cites the weight of technical rescue gear as a key advantage. He states when on an incident, the lighter weight USAR-type PPE allows more endurance. Plus, if the tech rescue gear becomes contaminated, firefighters are not contaminating their structural gear. “Firefighting gear is designed for fighting fires, and the USAR gear is designed for USAR operations.”

“If a fire department is going to respond and operate as a technical rescue team, it should have a separate set of PPE for the type of rescue operations it will be tasked with,” adds Braunle. “A perfect example would be firefighters responding to a water rescue incident with firefighting PPE instead of water rescue PPE. They are only asking for trouble. If they would accidentally end up in the water, they would more than likely drown.”

Get It Right

As with anything else, educating yourself about what you are about to buy also applies to departments specing technical rescue PPE. Departments want their personnel to wear the gear, and they are less likely to do so if it doesn’t work for them. Hnatko advises that a department should develop the specification for the gear then contact all the manufacturers and forward them the spec. He says most manufacturers will provide demo gear so a department can have a PPE trial where it goes through and figures out what firefighters like and don’t like, which results in good internal data covering what gear works for them. “If you get gear you don’t like and isn’t comfortable, you’re not inclined to wear it,” he says.

DiRenzo suggests referring to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1951, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Technical Rescue Incidents, and cross referencing it with NFPA 1670, Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents, when making the decision on what technical rescue gear to buy. NFPA 1951 covers the gear itself, while NFPA 1670 covers the different training levels for technical rescue. Doing so will allow the department to match the type of rescue PPE with the level of training.

The Right Gear for the Job

Hnatko contends that the proper PPE is a vital ensemble for those engaging in technical rescue. “A case in point is that a hazmat team has the proper ensembles for it to work in a hazmat environment,” he says. “I think folks doing tech rescue should have a set of PPE that’s dedicated to the trade they perform.

“As with pretty much all types of personal protective equipment, technology is always evolving and newer, lighter, stronger, safer protective equipment will be developed and designed specifically for the different types of technical rescue,” says Braunle. “It would be in the best interest of the fire department to include a specific line item in its budget for technical rescue PPE and for replacement of said PPE on a recurring basis, according to standards and manufacturers recommendations. This should be no different than what you would do with your firefighting PPE requirements. To venture out into the realm of technical rescue without investing in the proper protection for your responders could be costly or should we say deadly!”

DiRenzo adds, “It’s valuable; you just need to assess your need and the service you are going to provide. In career departments, you have turnover in members in the companies. In volunteer departments, you have turnover of new members and old members. It’s tough to stay on top of it, and it’s a very pricey thing to stay on top of. Think about what you are going to do and try to make it as cost-effective as possible.”

CHRIS Mc LOONE, associate editor of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, is a 19-year veteran of the fire service and an assistant chief with Weldon Fire Company (Glenside, PA). He has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years. While with Fire Engineering, he contributed to the May 2006 issue, a Jesse H. Neal Award winner for its coverage of the Hurricane Katrina response and recovery.

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