The Batman Suit

BOBBY HALTON   BY BOBBY HALTON

There is an amazing scene in the movie “Batman Begins” where the man who designs all the Batman gadgets, played by Morgan Freeman, is giving a tour of the research facility. The facility is slated to be closed because of budget cuts, and the benevolent Bruce Wayne is wondering why such innovation would be stopped. As Freeman’s character and Bruce Wayne are walking among the inventions, they see a suit designed for the military. To the best of my memory, a conversation ensues about the suit, which is described as being bulletproof, fireproof, and in general extremely effective in protecting soldiers from a wide variety of common threats.

Bruce Wayne, obviously impressed by the protection the suit affords, asks Freeman’s character how the suits were received by the military. Freeman says the military never got them, never purchased them, because the suits cost $10,000 and the government didn’t think a soldier’s life was worth $10,000. Every oath keeper who has pledged his life in the defense of the community-whether through military service, the fire service, or law enforcement-deserves the best protection money can buy.

Fortunately in the fire service, we understand the need for high-quality thermal protection and, by and large, most firefighters have the most technologically advanced and scientifically designed thermal protection available. This is probably the most effective and efficient use of technology in public service. We understand the direct threat posed to us by thermal insult; we have seen too many civilians horribly injured; and, tragically, too many firefighters have suffered tremendously from burn injuries.

The technology and research involved in the manufacture of today’s bunker gear are unparalleled in the history of personal protective clothing. The fabrics that we wear on our outer shell are tested and capable of providing protection nonexistent just five years ago. The thermal barriers provide the level of protection needed in today’s explosively dynamic fire environment. We have much better wicking capabilities that ensure the moisture our bodies generate is moved quickly into a safe area, preventing it from thermally burning us as the radiated heat builds up.

The fire service has been extremely fortunate in that the support facilities that design and test our thermal protective gear and our other critical firefighting technology are not being threatened with closure like those at Wayne Enterprises. We have been blessed with tremendous innovation with regard to fire service-related equipment and technology. Where we have been a tad remiss is in our implementation, training, and understanding of this technology in relation to the modern dynamic fire environment.

We understand that our personal protective gear does have its limitations. We must be extremely careful in how we maintain it, and we need to be diligent in how we don and doff it. Firefighters are cognizant of the need to be compliant with proper gear maintenance and to clean it and inspect it according to the manufacturer’s instructions and National Fire Protection Association 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting.

Firefighters know that gear loses its ability to protect when it is wet or compressed, so they are extremely diligent in ensuring that the gear remains dry whenever possible or that a backup suit is available when needed. Firefighters also need to be vigilant when their body mass changes so that compression burns do not occur from the material being stretched beyond its original designed parameters.

In the very same movie, Batman is threatened by a deadly gas; in true Hollywood fashion, he concocts an antidote to it. Today’s firefighters also face a deadly threat from fire gases. We also have an antidote, if you will, ready to deploy in our defense from some of smoke’s toxicity. Today we have a Batman tool for smoke exposure that is every bit as technologically advanced as the personal protective equipment we wear to protect us from heat exposure. And, much like the soldiers who never got the suits, we should have had access to this antidote since the 1990s.

We know today through numerous studies that fire smoke is extremely toxic, that the long-term exposure to fire smoke can result in cancers, and that the short-term exposure often results in death. The fire service for many years has been extremely diligent in its efforts to raise the level of awareness of carbon monoxide and, during the past 20 years, to raise the awareness of the dangers of hydrogen cyanide. The Batman-style antidote available to protect us from cyanide is available commercially as CYANOKIT®; the drug’s name is hydroxocobalamin.

An eight-year study of the Parisian Fire Brigade, which has used hydroxocobalamin on smoke inhalation victims, verified that the survival rates improved for smoke inhalation victims who were administered the drug. The contraindications for the use of drug were low, and the potential upsides of administering the drug in the presence of a victim of smoke inhalation were high.

The tragedy of this story is much like the Batman suit: This drug costs money, and its shelf life is short. In some communities, it has been decided that the life of a firefighter or a smoke inhalation victim just isn’t worth the cost. We currently know more about the toxicity of smoke than ever before; yet, what is the life of a firefighter or those you swore to protect worth in your community?

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