When PPE and Water Don’t Mix

Carl J. Haddon

Carl J. Haddon

The term personal protective equipment (PPE) should speak for itself. It is designed to protect us from the hazards we face as fire and rescue personnel. Are there times when our PPE puts us in harm’s way? I believe there are. For the sake of this article, the PPE I’ll be referring to is firefighting turnout or bunker gear.

Like many departments across the country, the vast majority of fire department calls (besides emergency medical service) here in our area are motor vehicle crashes. We respond to vehicle accidents like we would respond to any other emergency call. We are “turned out” in full bunker gear, with designated members or riding assignments that will don self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).

Our response area consists of roughly 50 miles of mountainous interstate highway that ends on the border with western Montana. Most of that Interstate parallels the Salmon River on one side of the highway and the Beaverhead Mountain Range on the other. We (Idaho) also happen to be a state (at least this part of Idaho) that doesn’t believe too much in the use of guard rails, Armco, or “Jersey” K Rail type concrete barriers along the highways. “They” call it “wild and scenic highway.” We firefighters call it something else, but that is a story for another time and place.

Like many other states with rivers that parallel major interstate highways, our state department of transportation enforces state law that says (paraphrased): Any emergency responder working an incident between the frost line (white highway line on the outer lane edge nearest the river) and the water’s edge must wear a personal flotation device (PFD) at all times. Violations carry a hefty fine for the individual as well as the department he’s working for.

Because of the terrain, our significant vehicle crashes involve one or both of the following scenarios with almost no exceptions: Wrecked vehicles come to rest in or near the water, or wrecked vehicles bounce off of the mountainside and come to rest on the highway or near or in the water. The same scenario holds true for most of our vehicle fires. Regardless, if we don’t have to use our apparatus as a blocker, we are forced to park on the river side of the frost line, requiring us to operate with PFDs on as part of our PPE. How well does bunker gear and a PFD work together?

PFD/Turnout Gear Interaction

PFDs, or life jackets, don’t mix well with turnouts, or SCBA. Even replacing a bunker coat with a life jacket doesn’t really work in a practical sense. I won’t get into the flotation values of various PFDs, but suffice it to say that even a class 5 whitewater rescue life jacket is no match for submerged leather firefighting boots and bunker pants with all of the goodies in our pockets. With or without a life jacket on, how quickly can we get out of our remaining bunker gear (especially with a life jacket on) should we find ourselves in moving water? Is this something that you train on? Should you? Please don’t get me wrong, a life jacket will certainly help to add something to your buoyancy, even with turnouts on, but water—especially swiftly moving river water—and PPE do not mix well.

This issue brings up another hot button topic regarding PPE and firefighter station wear. What about uniform shorts? I’ve heard and had lots of discussion about the pros and cons of departments allowing or not allowing their members to wear uniform shorts as an acceptable form of station wear. As it relates to the content of this article, an argument can be made for shorts being worn under turnout pants in areas with a common occurrence of calls near or at the water’s edge. It also makes for another debate regarding appropriate footwear. Even if shorts are allowed under bunkers, and you are forced to shed bunker pants for the sake of the rescue ops, what do you wear in place of your bunker boots for foot protection? That too, I fear, is a whole other bag of cats.

PFD Storage Feasibility

I was teaching a rescue class to a number of volunteer departments that respond along a river corridor. One of the chiefs looked shocked as I went about the presentation before the hands-on portion began. At the break, I asked this chief about the look of concern on his face. He admitted to me that although he knew that the law regarding wearing PFDs between the frost line and the water existed, he never thought to carry PFDs on their rigs. Thinking I was saying the right thing, I told the chief that now that he realized it, he could remedy the issue by adding the life jackets to his PPE list and ultimately onto his rigs. The chief smiled, shook his head, and said, “Carl, you don’t understand. We don’t have room on the rigs for the gear we have now. Where am I going to fit five or more Class 5 life jackets on each truck?” Sound familiar?

I can’t answer the questions regarding space on your apparatus for PFDs or the feasibility of your crews wearing uniform shorts in warm weather months. I can, however, offer a suggestion that training drills such as those we do for rapid intervention and Mayday, firefighter survival, and SCBA and search mazes aren’t OR SHOULDN’T be confined to only fireground operations. Rapid intervention and firefighter survival drills should also be developed for those departments that work in or near areas and situations where water and PPE wouldn’t mix. Can your firefighters swim proficiently? Are any of your members trained as lifeguards or open water rescue swimmers? Do you ever drill or practice doffing turnout pants and boots or jackets in a controlled environment like a swimming pool? We teach removing SCBA and PPE from a down firefighter prior to medical transport, but have you ever tried getting a firefighter out of PPE that has been submerged?

I am a firefighter who nearly drowned once in about 18 to 20 inches of running mountain creek water. I lost my footing in the water while carrying about 65 pounds of gear. I went down onto my back with the gear landing on my chest, and my turnout pants, boots, and pants pockets instantly filled with icy cold water. But for my training, I easily could have been a statistic. Don’t become a statistic. Everyone Goes Home!

CARL J.nHADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.

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