Equipment and Clothing
Despite American ingenuity in overcoming technological problems, progress in improving fire fighting equipment and protective clothing leaves 7 out of 10 fire chiefs and fire fighters dissatisfied, a commission survey indicated. But the commission cited reasons for the situation.
“Few equipment manufacturers can afford to invest heavily in research and development, especially when the payoff in a fragmented and conservative market is so uncertain,” the commission observed. “Marketing is affected by the fact that many fire departments simply cannot afford to buy innovative equipment. Others purchase conservatively because they lack the technical expertise to evaluate innovative equipment. Because firemen typically spend their careers with one department, they become attached to the ‘tried and true’ methods of that department.”
apparatus that “typically weighs 30 pounds” and “often provides less than 20 minutes’ protection because great exertion requires more air.” Both breathing apparatus and helmets were criticized for a tendency “to get snagged by protruding objects.” The report also complained that “most fire fighters’ helmets readily conduct heat to the inside of the helmet” and “turnout coats can be virtual sweat boxes,” contributing “to the fire fighter’s exhaustion.”
Research and development urged
With these problem areas in mind, the commission urged “the National Science Foundation, in its experimental research and development incentives program, and the National Bureau of Standards, in its experimental technology incentives program, to give high priority to the needs of the fire service.”
The commission warned that technological innovations should not create additional risks for fire fighters and declared that the effectiveness of research and development “in lowering fire fighter injuries as well as life and property losses should rank ahead of dollar savings as a goal.”
Another requirement is that research and development “stem from an accurate assessment of fire service needs,” the commission cautioned. For example, “in the real world of tight fire department budgets,” the emphasis should be on developing equipment “designed to meet most potential fire situations, rather than on equipment rarely needed.”
The commission endorsed “standardization of fire engine components” as a means of reducing costs, but recognized that “diversity may be needed to meet the varying needs of different communities.” Standard modules that permit the addition of features were offered by the commission as a middle-of-the-road optimum solution to the standardization problem.
“One fire department need that should not be subjected to trade-off or compromise is safety,” the commission declared, adding that research is needed to identify equipment features that don’t adequately protect fire fighters and to determine how to provide such protection.
System approach recommended
“Research and development must take whole systems, rather than piecemeal approaches,” the report asserted. Reviewing personal equipment, the commission cited “breathing apparatus so incompatible with the helmet that the two cannot be worn together” and suggested that a one-piece zip-up suit might replace the separate turnout coat, trousers and boots. Walkie-talkies and flashlights could be integrated into the helmet, the report noted.
At the same time, a systems approach for developing innovative equipment should not be done at “the expense of development of improvements in traditional equipment,” the commission warned. It explained that the results of a “search for major departures . . . are not likely to reach the market for several years to come” and the adoption of major innovations will extend over many years. The report acknowledged the fact that “fire departments cannot afford to discard all the equipment they have now.”
Another research and development consideration, the commission said, is that “improvements must be acceptable for fire departments.” New equipment may be too expensive—“simply beyond a fire department’s budget”—or it may “offer too little improvement in performance for the investment required.” New equipment also “may require skilled operators which fire departments are unable to provide without further training.
“There can be psychological barriers as well,” the commission pointed out. “If an innovation departs too radically from traditional practice, it will be resisted.”
Furthermore, “products need to be adapted to users’ capabilities,” the report noted. Human factors engineering that modifies equipment to be “comfortable, safe, and easy to use,” the commission said, “has been applied with success to military and industrial equipment but never, to our knowledge, to fire trucks and other fire fighting equipment.”