DRIVING APPARATUS IN BUNKER GEAR

As we all know, time is of the essence in our profession. Regardless of whether the incident is a fire, an emergency medical run, or any other type of call, we should try to get to the incident in the shortest time. It can be (and has been) demonstrated that time normally cannot be made up en route to the incident. Driving faster and with reckless abandon only gains seconds and has been proven to be significantly less safe (if not deadly).

So, where do we make up time, and what are safe driving practices? I read somewhere that the only way to reduce response time is to shorten turnout or scramble time-the time from the receipt of the alarm in the station until the apparatus leaves the station. Part of scramble time is the time spent “bunkering up” for fire runs.

Our policy in Toledo is that all members are bunkered up, seated, and belted in prior to turning a wheel on any fire run. Apparatus drivers are exempt from this rule. First, it would take extra time for the driver to bunker up on top of starting the apparatus, checking the position of the door, glancing out side mirrors to quickly view the status of compartment doors, and all the other “checks” a good driver makes before turning a wheel. Second, many drivers are uncomfortable operating apparatus in bunker pants and boots. Once on-scene, drivers are required to bunker up as quickly as practical.

John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is the author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000). He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.

Question: Does your department have a policy on wearing bunker gear while driving apparatus to a fire call?

Bill Peters, battalion chief (ret.), Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department

Response: When I was with the Jersey City Fire Department, we didn’t have a specific policy about driving in bunker gear. Generally, the engine chauffeurs drove with low shoes on, but the ladder company drivers had to go to work when they arrived on-scene. Many drivers wore turnout pants and boots and would pull their coats on when they arrived.

This question raises an important point of interest. Stopping distance is made up of perception distance + reaction distance + braking distance. Perception distance is the distance the vehicle travels from the time your eyes see a hazard until it recognizes it. For an alert driver, this is about three-quarters of a second. The reaction distance is the distance traveled from the time your brain tells your foot to move from the accelerator until your foot is actually applying the brakes. Again, the average driver’s reaction time is three-quarters of a second. A vehicle traveling at 55 miles per hour will travel about 60 feet in three-quarters of a second. So you have traveled 120 feet before the brakes begin stopping the vehicle! Delaying the reaction time because of heavy footwear and cumbersome turnout pants will most definitely increase stopping distance.

The labor laws of the State of New Jersey state, “Whenever a fire apparatus leaves the fire station in response to a fire alarm, all firefighters, except the driver of the fire apparatus, shall have donned their protective clothing before the apparatus is in motion.” This would be a good policy for all firefighters to adopt.

Gary Seidel, chief, Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department

Response: The only time drivers wear turnouts is during an emergency response to a hazardous environment: fires, hazardous materials incidents, vehicle accidents, and so on. Then we require our apparatus drivers to wear only their turnout pants and boots while driving. We allow the apparatus driver to use his discretion about whether to wear the turnout coat while responding to the incident. However, the apparatus operators keep their turnout coats and helmets readily accessible and, on arrival at the scene, they then don the rest of the personal protective equipment necessary for completing their assigned duties. As far as the officer and other firefighters are concerned, they wear their turnout pants, boots, and coat while the apparatus is responding. In addition, as you would expect, seat belts are mandatory.

Bobby Halton, chief, Coppell (TX) Fire Department

Response: Here, as in most of the Dallas Metroplex fire departments, we use common sense primarily to manage our responsibilities. In very simple terms, our policy states, “If responding from quarters, one should don [one’s] protective gear prior to leaving the station. If a member is otherwise delayed to the rig, it’s fine to dress out once you get on-scene, to avoid a long delay. It is also fine to dress on-scene if responding from outside or off an EMS call. At all times while an apparatus is moving all members will be seat belted.”

I want to say this as respectfully as I can in memory of the recent loss of our brother, 24-year-old Brian Hunton, who died from injuries he received when he fell from a moving rig in Amarillo, Texas. There is absolutely no acceptable reason to be without the seat belt fastened in a moving fire truck-none.

A good friend once laughingly remarked how strange he felt as his Fire Department of New York rescue company was seat-belted while passing buses of unrestrained civilians traveling down New York City roadways. I travel New York City roads routinely; so does my 80-year-old mother. My money is on seat belts. I see the value in our zeal to be ready; it is what makes us who we are. I want us to slow down and be aware, be focused. How you wear your gear is just as important as how quickly you can get it on.

It doesn’t really matter where we suit up, as long as we do it as soon as we can and do it right. There are plenty of things to square up on-scene, so if a member is putting on his hood and jacket, the nozzleman can be flaking hose or making connections. Wear your stuff, wear it right, put it on wherever.

Rick Lasky, chief, Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

Response: Obviously, our goal is to respond as quickly and as safely as possible to an emergency incident. With that in mind, we leave it to the responding unit to decide whether the driver wears the bunker gear. The tower ladder crew, however, is encouraged to wear it while driving. The ladder driver operates as part of the ventilation team; wearing the gear shortens readiness and deployment time once on the scene. Our first-due ambulance at a fire, unless met by an injured civilian, operates as part of the suppression crews and usually bunks out on arrival at the scene. Engine and quint drivers decide on a case-by-case basis or according to personal preference. We’ve never faced the issue or argued over whether it’s safe or unsafe to wear bunker gear while driving. So far, it hasn’t been an issue or a problem. As safety conscious as we are, if it were determined that it posed a safety concern, we would address it.

John O’Neal, chief, Manassas Park (VA) Fire Department

Response: Our department does not have a written or formal policy on wearing bunker gear while driving apparatus to fire calls. Based on past practices, driver/operators typically opt not to wear bunker gear while driving. Once at the scene of the emergency, they dress out and wear the appropriate level of PPE for their assigned function. The same holds true for our EMS crews: If they are operating in traffic or involved in extrication, they dress out and wear the appropriate level of PPE for the occasion after arrival.

The department is in the process of updating and adding operational guidelines and policies. The policy addressing this issue spells out the minimum levels of PPE for operating at emergency scenes but does not require or specify minimums for operators driving to the scene.

Steve Kreis, assistant chief, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department

Response: To the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t been a problem in Phoenix. During driver training, we teach engineers that they shouldn’t wear bunker gear while driving. Engineers can wear brush pants over their shorts while driving.

Bobby Shelton, firefighter/EMT-1, Cincinnati (OH) Fire Department

Response: We do not have a written policy that dictates what our fire apparatus operators wear on responses. The drivers on ladder companies tend to wear, at minimum, their bunker pants while driving.

Engine company drivers, conversely, usually wear the standard work uniform during the day or warm months. However, that is not the rule. It boils down to personal preference.

The thing that needs to be kept in mind is safe operation of the vehicle. Some argue that driving apparatus while wearing fire boots limits how responsive you can be in braking (and other functions) during an emergency. That may be true, but I have never experienced a loss of sensitivity in driving fire apparatus while wearing bunker gear. In talking to other drivers, some have said they feel safer driving without the “encumbrances” of turnouts; many have said they see no difference.

Having worked for a couple of combination departments in the past, I do not recall any written policy about wearing fire gear while driving. Each organization has to decide what is in the best interest of its personnel and what will encourage safe responses.

Jeffrey Schwering, lieutenant, Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services

Response: We have no policy on this subject. The decision is left up to the discretion of each fire equipment specialist. The weather here plays a big part in whether we respond to an alarm in turnout gear.

Although wearing turnout gear when driving the apparatus is left to the discretion of the drivers, all other rules governing apparatus response-wearing seat belts, speed, and so on-remain in effect. All fire equipment specialists are required to wear full PPE at vehicle accidents or at any scene where they are directly involved in the incident.

Thomas Dunne, deputy chief, Fire Department of New York

Response: Wearing bunker gear while driving to fire calls is optional for chauffeurs. All other personnel who ride are required to be suited up in full protective gear prior to boarding the truck. The intent is to have firefighters prepared to work as soon as they arrive at the location of the incident and to allow drivers the flexibility needed to safely drive the unit.

If a chauffeur elects to wear his bunker gear, certain restrictions are in place. Work gloves are not worn so that the driver can maintain a proper feel of the steering wheel. For the same reason, the thumb loops attached to the wristlet material of the bunker coats are not used until the driver has positioned the apparatus.

Currently, all of our firefighters are issued leather bunker boots. Chauffeurs were not allowed to wear the rubber boots that were previously available because they did not allow for adequate control of the foot pedals.

Once a chauffeur arrives at the scene, he plays a vital role in the fire operation and is expected to wear all of his protective gear.

Many of our chauffeurs do not wear bunker gear while driving. Any kind of bunker ensemble is more physically restrictive than a regular station uniform. The minimal time it takes for one firefighter to change into full protective gear at the scene of a fire is a compromise that allows for a safer response.

Ron Hiraki, assistant chief, Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One

Response: We encourage our members to don full turnout gear prior to boarding the apparatus and responding. There are two reasons for this action. First, it eliminates the need to “dress” while in a moving vehicle. This reduces the chance of bouncing around in the vehicle or the temptation to undo a seat belt/shoulder harness. There is an improvement in the “quality” of getting dressed, thereby increasing firefighter safety at the scene. The cost of a little extra time spent dressing before boarding is well worth the safety enhancement.

Second, we are ready to go on arrival at the scene. This is essential since our drivers/apparatus operators are immediately needed to comply with the two-in/two-out rule. This also ensures that firefighters have donned all their protective equipment and enhances our public image.

Striving to be proactive, we purchase the newer styles of turnout boots designed to fit more like a work boot instead of the oversized rubber bulbous clods that make up the traditional look. Our smaller firefighter roster also allows us to measure, size, and order turnout coats and pants that fit the individual. We realize that this is a luxury when compared with fire departments where members go to the commissary to find something that fits from the inventory on hand or stock sizes.

Arthur Mata, staff training/safety, Holland City (MI) Fire Department

Response: You are going to find that most departments have such a policy. That is not an issue. The problem is having chief officers, command officers, and line officers who will enforce the policy. When the officer ranks are weak, safety is weak, and firefighters end up injured.

Brian J. Bartolick, lieutenant, Bushnell’s Basin Fire Department, Pittsford, NY

Response: Our department allocates a full half of our operations manual to apparatus operation. It includes a policy for wearing protective equipment while driving. The bulk of the policy states that bunker boots and pants must be worn while driving the fire apparatus. The fire boots are stressed to provide a good, safe surface with which to contact the unit’s control pedals. This procedure applies also when driving a Chevy Suburban “squad-type” vehicle we just placed in service. Even though there was concern regarding the bulk of bunker pants, it was established that there was more room in the front seat of the Suburban than in one of our large, heavy rescue units. With safety in mind, a firefighter in typical “station wear,” including sturdy boots with a good tread, could drive the apparatus to a nonemergency assignment and be well within the guidelines.

Lance C. Peeples, instructor, St. Louis County (MO) Fire Academy

Response: With the advent of leather fire boots, there is no reason fire apparatus cannot be safely operated while wearing turnout gear. I have on several occasions witnessed apparatus operators getting dressed in fairly dangerous circumstances-i.e., in close proximity to passing traffic. Consequently, I have made it a practice to get dressed prior to responding.

Danny Kistner, battalion chief, Garland (TX) Fire Department

Response: The Garland Fire Department does not have a policy regarding wearing bunker gear while driving apparatus to a fire call. The issue is left to the collective decision of the driver and company officer. Some drivers feel comfortable donning PPE prior to responding; others do not.

Some would argue that it is in the best interest of time management to have a driver at least partially bunkered out prior to arrival on a fire scene so that the remaining team members are not left waiting. However, it can also be argued that bunker gear can impede reaction while driving fire apparatus. The question then becomes which technique optimizes performance and provides the greatest margin of safety?

My experience as a company officer has taught me that all drivers do not come from the same mold. I have had drivers who preferred to bunk out prior to responding, and the gear did not interfere with driving at all. Conversely, I have had drivers who preferred not to wear the gear for fear it could adversely affect driving performance. I did not have a problem with either opinion.

Our department employs a mandatory donning exercise with time constraints so that proficiency in PPE is maximized. Therefore, I do not believe that drivers who wait until arrival at the fire scene to don protective gear create an undue burden.

Matt Rettmer, lieutenant, Castle Rock (CO) Fire and Rescue Department

Response: Our directive does not specifically address wearing bunker gear while driving, but it does address our engineers’ minimum level of PPE while performing their functions at emergency incidents. The directive states: Engineer PPE shall consist of a minimum of helmet, bunker pants, boots, and gloves and shall be worn by the engineer while performing in that capacity. The remainder of the structural PPE shall be readily available and shall be worn to assist with structural firefighting or to shuttle equipment from the apparatus into the “hot” zone.

The engineer should use good judgment in wearing the appropriate bunker gear while driving the apparatus. If the bunker coat is too bulky to safely operate the apparatus, the coat should not be worn. Another consideration is the engineer’s footwear. A boot too big may hamper the engineer’s operating the accelerator/brake; this should be evaluated during the individual’s training. For example, racecar drivers wear special footwear to better enable their “foot work” during a race as well as helping them get the “feel” of their car. Engineers need to have plenty of drive time to determine their “foot work” for operating the vehicle safely.

Tony Tricarico, captain, Fire Department of New York

Response: Our policy for driving apparatus with bunker gear is simply stated: Members shall not drive department apparatus while wearing rubber boots. Driving with bunker pants and/or leather boots is optional. All members, except the chauffeur, are required to don their PPE prior to boarding the apparatus. He is the only member permitted to don PPE on the scene. The rubber boots do not give you the dexterity of leather boots. They feel like and move with your foot as opposed to rubber boots, which tend to be wider, heavier, and a little clumsy for emergency driving operations.

Samuel V. Yardumian, chief engineer, Bryn Athens (PA) Fire Company

Response: Our department does not have a policy on the matter. Everything stated here is my personal opinion drawn from my experiences as a firefighter and a former over-the-road truck driver. I believe that to safely operate any vehicle, maximum freedom of movement of limbs is essential and that full turnout gear dangerously restricts that freedom. This is especially true in the much more space-restricted environment found in some of today’s tilt-cab trucks. When maneuvering a vehicle in heavy traffic and on crowded streets, a driver must have the unencumbered ability to make rapid and sometimes complete turns of the steering wheel.

The close spacing of the accelerator and brake pedals increase the possibility that the wearer of traditional turnout boots can easily catch the wrong pedal or both pedals simultaneously. Again, the restricted movement from the boots and bunker pants, coupled with the reduced “feel” through the boots, may delay recognition and correction of the error.

In my truck-driving days, most highway tractors were of the high-tilt cab style. Even in the dead of winter, many of us who would drive for several unbroken hours would turn up the heat in the cab and remove our coats before starting out.

I wonder if any entity has attempted to make a correlation between incidents, even ones that did not result in a crash, and the wearing of turnout gear.

Damon Allen, firefighter, Marion County (FL) Fire Rescue

Response: Our department SOGs state that firefighters riding in the back of a half-cab apparatus are required to wear full turnout gear with hearing protection. However, it is highly recommended for everyone else riding in the enclosed apparatus to be in full turnout gear, to increase the state of readiness. The exception is the driver/operator, who does not have to be in full turnout gear because of safety considerations.

Brian Singles, firefighter, Hampton (VA) Fire Department

Response: Our fire department does not have a set policy for wearing bunker gear while driving fire apparatus; that is left up to the individual driver. Personally, I wear my bunker pants while driving apparatus to the emergency scene; I have done so for many years. This not only affords me precious time when I arrive on the scene of a working fire or any other emergency, but it also allows me to be that much more ahead of the game so I can dress out in full protective gear to assist my crew in fighting the fire if needed-plus, it keeps your feet dry while opening a hydrant.

I believe that all driver/operators should wear at least their bunker pants while driving the apparatus because you just never know what you’re going up against when responding to an emergency. As an example, how many times have you responded to the same address over and over again on that annoying fire alarm and thought to yourself, “Same routine, respond, and reset”? But, [there may be] that one time when you turn the corner and the sky is lit up and you wish you would have taken that extra 10 or 15 seconds to put on your bunker pants. We’ve all done it one time or another. Some fire departments do not have a set policy for wearing bunker gear while driving; maybe they should. After all, policies (no matter how silly they may seem) are written and put into place to protect all firefighters.

Tim Jacobs, firefighter/paramedic, Lansing (MI) Fire Department

Response: In October 2004, I convinced Bob Koedam, senior fire crash investigator at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of my theory that bunker pants could be considered a contributing factor in emergency vehicle response accidents. I’m not saying bunker pants cause accidents. I’m just saying that I believe they are a contributing factor and should not be worn by drivers.

After some consideration, Mr. Koedam and other crash investigators at NIOSH, in January 2005, submitted a pilot program that was approved for study. Without great detail, the study will determine whether bunker pants increase gas-to-brake reaction time. As of May 2005, the study was to begin sometime in May. Until the results of the study come out, review your own accidents, ask your drivers. Remember, it’s not a matter of if the driver is comfortable driving in bunker pants, it’s a matter of driving the safest way possible. Again, it’s all opinion until the results of the study are known; however, it certainly warrants discussion.

Tom Taylor, assistant chief of operations, Moses Lake (WA) Fire Department

Response: Our department does not have a policy covering wearing turnouts while driving apparatus. We have discussed this issue in the past and felt that the concerns regarding driver mobility and safety to others on the roadway outweighed any (if there are in fact any) benefits to having your apparatus driver “bunked up.”

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