Get the Most Protection From Your Protective Gear
Turnout gear is designed to protect the fire fighter from the possibility of disabling injuries and impacts of the profession. However, unless properly worn and maintained, the protection offered by this clothing will be greatly diminished.
Fire fighters deserve the best possible protection their protective clothing can offer, both in design and material.
Protection must be rendered to the full body, hands, head, eyes, ears, feet and respiratory tract; and there are basic standards that are required to provide this protection. The National Fire Protection Association has participated in the creation of these standards with its 1971 Standard on Protective Clothing for Structural Fire Fighting. More recently, federal and state agencies have been active in the setting of standards and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is currently engaged in the development of protective clothing for fire fighters with Project FIRES.
But all of this goes for naught if, in the end, its use is not in accord with the protective design or if cleaning and maintenance instructions are not followed.
There is no excuse for improper care and maintenance of equipment and protective clothing. This only shows a definite lack of discipline and training on the part of both the user and his supervisors. However, there are many excuses for not wearing protective clothing and/or equipment in accordance with their designed use. Let’s look at these excuses and see if they merit redesigning protective gear.
The fire helmet is designed to protect the head from impact, heat penetration and flame. Face and eye protection are provided with the addition of plastic shields and ear flaps.
The helmet is composed of a shell, a liner and a suspension system. It can be form-fitting or have an adjustable headband. To do its job, it must remain on the head, secured with a chin strap. Some argue that a form-fitted helmet does not require a chin strap, but experience shows that it may be easily dislodged when struck with falling debris; and, if it cannot be found immediately, the fire fighter must leave the area, hopefully without additional injury. In any event, he is lost to the fire operation.
Leather helmets require more maintenance than the polycarbonate, fiberglass, plastic, etc., because leather absorbs water and loses its protective additives when exposed to heat. The headband, which gives the helmet its form-fitting capability, loses its resilence and must be replaced. The helmet must then be sent back to the factory for repairs and this takes time. Nonformfitting helmets can be serviced without the need for factory repair.
Leather helmets have front pieces that indicate the fire fighter’s unit and rank. It is color-coded to indicate branch of service, i.e., ladder company, rescue company, engine company, etc.
Plastic and/or polycarbonate helmets utilize a stencil or decal system for identification. Front pieces enable the supervising officer to identify the unit affiliation and rank of the person he is addressing. Failure to maintain front pieces so they are readable is a result of lack of supervision on the part of supervisors.
Helmets that develop cracks, holes or exposed wiring in the brim section should be replaced; fiberglass fillers are not a recognized repair. The brim of the helmet is designed to catch debris and channel water away from the face, ears and neck.
Brims that are turned down, many at right angles, are graphic symbols of the “salty, 90-mission” helmet, but actually they increase the risk hazard to the wearer. An impact on the turneddown helmet would cause the brim to strike the rear of the neck, which could cause serious injury to a most vulnerable portion of the body. A turneddown brim also provides a channel for embers and hot fluids to enter the area between the collar and neck. Remember, work performance is the measure of a unit’s competence, not dirty, misshaped helmets and front pieces. These can be obtained in a myriad of ways other than fire fighting.
Another common practice is the use of a rubber band (approximately 1-inch wide, cut from an inner tube) placed around the crown of the helmet. It secures items such as flashlights, wooden chocks and nails, screwdrivers, etc. This practice has both pros and cons.
The cons are added weight to the helmet, pressures on the panels of the crown causing indentations and thereby reducing the clearance and strength of the barrier between the helmet interior and the head. The band also obscures information found on the front piece.
The pros of the band give the fire fighter the use of a light with handsfree operation, ready access to chocks and/or nails to secure doors open, help keep coat pockets free for rope, gloves, etc., and help reduce the fire fighter’s profile in tight, confined areas.
The turnout coat is designed to offer protection to the upper body, except for the head and hands. The coat is usually constructed of an outer shell, a vapor barrier and a thermal liner. The outer shell should not char, separate or melt when placed in a forced air laboratory oven at 500°F (260°C) for a period of five minutes.
The vapor barrier is used to prevent or substantially inhibit the transfer of water, corrosive liquids, steam and other hot vapors from the outside of the garment to the wearer’s body. The lining is a material or assemblage attached to the inside of the shell to provide thermal protection and padding.
As you can see, the turnout coat’s total protection relies on its three basic component parts. If any one part is compromised, the coat must be repaired or replaced. The lining should be permanently attached to the outer shell so as to maintain the integrity of the coat. Older coats that are still in service have detachable liners. Experience has shown that during the hot summer months, liners are removed and substantial injuries result. A liner that shows signs of tampering with the stitching is cause enough to require the user to procure a new coat.
The practice of cutting the length of the coat by the user to more than 3 inches above its designed hemline must not be tolerated. Coats that are cut should be replaced.
Coats should be cleaned according to manufacturers’ directions. Failure to maintain a clean coat allows for the buildup of foreign particles on the outer shell and could increase fabric flammability. Embedded particles also can cause fiber breakage. In addition, coats may have absorbed corrosives which, if unwashed, will permanently damage the fabric.
Collars are placed on coats to provide protection to the neck and throat from water, hot fluids, embers, and debris. It is a rare sight, except during severe winter weather, to see collars pulled up and secured. An excuse offered is the placement of the radio under the coat and the need for access to the radio’s remote transmitter. Almost everyone leaves the topmost snap (fastener) open for this reason, even though the transmitter can be attached to the collar with little difficulty. Failure to secure and pull up the collar before donning your SCBA leaves an open avenue to the neck and back for entry of debris, fluids and embers. Due to its weight, the SCBA has a tendency to pull the collar down and out from the neck area.
Wristlets are provided in the sleeves of the turnout coat to prevent the passage of hot fluids, embers, flame, or heat up the sleeve. Distorted wristlets are of no value. Remember, while pointing the nozzle, the fire fighter always has his arms exposed unless they are protected by wristlets.
Retroreflective trim is added to the arm and trunk portion of the coat to increase the visible location of the coat user, by reflecting a light back to the source. The trim material must be kept free of stains and dirt as these tend to reduce reflectivity. Retroreflective material must be replaced when it becomes worn, ripped, burned or loses its reflective ability.
Foot and leg protection is provided by hip-length boots or bunker trousers with short-length boots. The federally sponsored program of Project FIRES is currently testing bunker pants and short boots for the fire service. Boots shall be provided with a steel toe and a one-piece stainless steel midsole and be water-resistant. Boots are designed to be worn in the pulled-up position.
Boots that are worn in the pulleddown position become collectors of debris such as hot embers, glass and hot fluids. If hot fluids and embers do enter the boots, they are held against the skin and almost always increase the burn injury. Also, boots that are pulled up after the fire fighting has begun often contain debris, water, etc., which cause injuries and discomfort to the user. Often the user must leave the zone of battle to remove such debris.
Boots should be cleaned and shaken out after each use in order to ensure reliability. Manufacturers discontinued the use of adjustable strapping at the top of the hip boot. This strapping prevented debris from entering the boot when the user was kneeling or climbing a ladder. Some thought should be given to the reinstatement of this feature.
Boots must be comfortable and must extend in the pulled-up position up and under the turnout coat.
Some departments allow the use of safety shoes by certain personnel during structural fire fighting. The practice relieves the fatigue factor for certain personnel, such as fire fighters assigned to roof and outside ventilation.
Ascending six and seven stories, 10 to 20 times a tour, takes its toll in body strength and, as we well know, fatigue is a prime cause of injuries. As a builtin safety measure, the fire fighter using safety shoes has to wear fire-retardant pants in conjunction with them. The shoes must be constructed of waterrepellent leather with a stainless steel protected plate, a reinforced protected arch and a steel toe.
What happens is, people who have these shoes wear them all the time, no matter what the assignment. Often, the biggest offenders are the officers, who should be setting the example.
Gloves are designed to provide protection against flame, heat, vapor, liquids, sharp objects and other hazards that are encountered during structural fire fighting. There is a misconception that gloves need not be sized properly. Every user should be fitted to make sure that his physical dexterity is not impaired to any great degree.
Severe injury or burns to the hands, besides being painful, presents the victim with the added problem of how to maintain his personal hygiene. The practice of removing a glove to test the temperature is valid, but an ungloved hand is not valid at all times.
There are numerous signs at structural fires that indicate high temperatures (blistering entrance doors, obvious flame venting, plaster and cement spalling, etc.), thereby limiting the need for glove removal. Only approved gloves for the fire service should be used, and then discarded when they become worn or torn.
Supervisory personnel must be above reproach when it comes to their protective clothing, since they set the example for subordinates. Do as I say and not as I do doesn’t wash anymore.
Supervisory personnel who think they’re doing their subordinates a favor by not requiring proper care, use or replacement of protective clothing because of cost factors are really doing a disservice because of the injuries that can be sustained.
Discipline and training are the key words. The fire fighter must be properly trained in the use and care of his protective clothing, and supervisory personnel must maintain discipline in the enforcement of the safety standards set forth by the fire service.