BY BRADLEY R. HUBBARD
Structural firefighting bunker gear is an essential part of firefighter safety. Often, firefighters think of their bunker gear in terms of thermal protection during fire attack operations. However, bunker gear serves several purposes beyond thermal protection. Bunker boots protect a firefighter’s feet from falling objects and sharp debris on the fire scene. Steel toes and steel sole boots provide puncture and crush protection. Additionally, the contact between bunker boots and the walking surface provides the wearer protection against slip, trip, and fall injuries. When is the last time you checked the tread on your boots?
LESSONS FROM OTHER INDUSTRIES
Slip, trip, and fall injuries are a significant cause of injury in the food service and construction industries. The food service industry recognizes grease in kitchens and freshly mopped tile floor surfaces as contributing factors to slip, trip, and fall injuries. “Floor slipperiness is a critical issue in studying slip-and-fall problems in restaurants.”1 Research and technology have provided changes in footwear to minimize the risk to workers in these industries.
(1) Bunker boots with balding tread, as shown in the photo, are dangerous to firefighters operating on the fireground. (Photo by author.)
The lessons learned in these industries provide valuable information that can be applied to the fire service for those willing to look outside the box. “It is of primary importance to ensure adequate friction between workers’ shoes and the workplace surface in preventing foot slips. Therefore, characteristics of shoe wear/tear and surface conditions that may lower the coefficient of friction (COF) values should be identified.”2 Hazards in the construction industry often involve working from elevated platforms and on roofs.
In the United States, the fireground is the leading location for injuries to on-duty firefighters. In 2005, the “fall, slip, jump” category accounted for 25.5 percent of fireground injuries.3 The high rate of slip-and-fall incidents on the fireground can be attributed to ventilation operations on rooftops, multifloor access from ground ladders, and wet working surfaces, which contribute to decreased friction between bunker boots and the walking surface. Weather also is a factor.
Limited visibility is another hazard factor. It is more difficult to see the walking surface when working during the night. Face masks on self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) also limit the wearer’s visibility, which could make it difficult for firefighters to visualize their walking path and to avoid hazards such as ice, oil, holes in roofs, and other debris commonly found on the fire scene.
Since we have little control over the variables on the fireground, the need for appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) is paramount; that includes our footwear. National Fire Protection Association 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, 2007 edition, Section 7.10.9, illustrates the importance of tread depth by specifying minimum COF requirements. We place a great deal of attention on bunker gear, but when is the last time you checked the tread on your boots?4
Many departments have policies requiring systematic checks of bunker gear for heat or physical damage. They should incorporate inspection of tread depth into these checks. Does your department budget for new boots in the purchase price of new bunker gear, or does it reuse old boots? Using old boots with worn treads may lead to a false sense of protection from slip, trip, and fall injuries.
Truckee (CA) Fire District Chief (Ret.) Michael Terwilliger explains “airplane crash syndrome” (ACS) as “the flashy attraction of a news story to the media when the story involves hundreds of people in one event.” He used this concept to prove the point that exponentially more people are killed on U.S. roadways per year, yet an airplane crash always gets more news coverage.5
The ACS concept can be applied to bunker gear as well. When looking at the frequency of hazardous exposures, how many times does your gear face heat stress in fire suppression activities? By comparison, how many times do your bunker boots provide traction for you on the walking surface? The first answer will vary according to your local call volume. The second answer should be universal: every time you don your gear!
Bunker boots may not be the most glamorous part of a firefighter’s PPE ensemble, but they are important. The next time your department finds itself talking about fireground injuries, do not overlook slip, trip, and fall injuries. Ask your department members, “Are we walking on the problem?”
1. Bhattacharya, Amit; Shiow-yi Chiou; Paul A. Succop, (1996) “Effect of Workers’ Shoe Wear on Objective and Subjective Assessment of Slipperiness,” American Industrial Hygiene Association Journal, 1996; 57: 825-831.
2. Chang, Wen-Ruey; Theodore Courtney, K; Filiaggi, Alfred J, Huang, Yueng Hsiang, “Slip & Falls: Employee Experience and Perception of Floor Slipperiness: A Field Survey In Fast-Food Industry,” Professional Safety, 2006; 51(9):34-38.
3. Karter Jr, Michael J., Joseph L Molis, “U.S. Firefighter Injuries-2005,” National Fire Protection Administration. November 2006, 6.
4. National Fire Protection Association 1971, Personal Protective Ensemble, online database, 2007.
5. Terwilliger, Michael S, “Fire Commentary: Falling Off Apparatus,” Fire Engineering, December 2004, 90-91.
BRADLEY R. HUBBARD is a graduate student at the University of Central Missouri, where he is pursuing a master of science degree in occupational safety management. He has a B.S. in crisis and disaster management from the same institution. He is the graduate assistant for the Institute for Rural Emergency Management, an organization sponsored by the University of Central Missouri. Hubbard is a firefighter with the Johnson County (MO) Fire Protection District and an EMT for the Johnson County Ambulance District.