Protective Gear—A Suit for All Seasons

Protective Gear—A Suit for All Seasons


Volunteers Corner

Safety. At almost every seminar you attend, time is set aside for this most important topic.

Addressed either as a formal concern or incorporated into other subjects, the matter of safety sets some in the audience to nodding their heads and others to scribbling notes. But all too often the heads that nod are not in a position to make changes, and the notes that are scribbled get discarded when reaching the desks of those who can effect changes.

What exactly is safety? The often heard response to this question is, “Returning to the fire station without injury.”

Is this safety or just dumb luck?

Only by looking at the overall attitude of the department can we find the real answer to this question. Safety, unfortunately, especially in the area of personal equipment, is becoming synonomous with expenditure; and this is one of the reasons that the question of safety frequently lands on deaf ears.

Look at your department’s total commitment to safety, starting at the very top with the purse string holders, continuing through the ranks, and ending with the attitudes (either positive or negative) entrenched in our new members through training.

The people in charge of equipping the firefighters have an obligation to provide us with the best protection available. A few budgetary dollars saved cannot erase the pain, suffering, and loss that can result from firefighters entering fire buildings clothed in plastic gloves, inadequate head and foot protection, or coats that cannot pass the flame-proof requirements of children’s sleepwear.

The size of the department or the amount of alarms responded to cannot be the governing factor when it comes to protecting our firefighters. This is an obligation that must be met.

Obligations, however, are two-sided coins. If the town is obligated to buy appropriate equipment for us, then it stands to reason that we, in turn, have an obligation to both wear and take care of the equipment entrusted to us. How can we upgrade our equipment and give reasonable arguments for the purchase of state-of-the-art personal protection when the purse string holders time and again witness our firefighters responding, operating, and returning without all their turnout gear on?

“They don’t wear it.”

“Gloves? Gloves now cost almost $30 a pair. After a fire they’re all over the apparatus floor.”

It always amuses me to see the seasons change; and along with increasing and decreasing temperatures we find increasing and decreasing amounts of turnout gear, almost as if it was designed to protect us from the elements. In the winter, you will see most firefighters in full gear, because it’s cold. In summer, I have seen people riding the apparatus with shorts, tee-shirts, and sandals.

What in God’s name do these people expect to accomplish on the fireground, to say nothing of the protection lost, if (heaven forbid) they’re involved in a vehicular accident while responding?

Our turnout gear is not designed to keep us warm in the winter months. It’s designed to protect us from exposure to fire, steam, hot water, embers, radiant heat, etc.—and it cannot do this in a compartment or on an apparatus’ boot rack 10 feet off the ground. It must be on your body.

Coveralls or bunker pants in the summer (as well as in the winter) will protect our members, especially those responding from the beach or backyard dressed in shorts or bathing suits. After all, we cannot mandate that our members not wear tee-shirts and shorts, but we can tell them that they cannot enter a fire building in that garb.

The easiest way to ensure this is to take the turnout gear off the apparatus’ boot racks (this will also stop members from standing in the hose bed to dress while responding). Put the gear on clothes racks on the apparatus floor. Have all members report to the fire station, dress, and then mount the trucks. Your personnel are now fully protected and ready to “go to work” on arrival.

Pie in the sky? Not really. Some suburban departments have found that their members are more effective on the fireground when not having to worry about putting on boots, helmets, coats, and self-contained breathing apparatus while making that all-important initial sizeup.

Many rural departments, I realize, have a “distance to the fire station” problem, and most of their members report directly to the fire scene. Trucks might only be manned with just a driver. Once at the fire, a decision is made (usually by the member) as to whether or not he “needs” to don his gear. After all, “It’s only a car fire” or (a worse situation) “I only ran in to make sure everyone was out” (I think this is called making a search).

The point is that the fire doesn’t know it’s in rural America, and it will burn you just as fast as a fire in the urban cities. These private vehicle responders can either be issued gear to be carried in their cars or the gear can be put in a very convenient location—on the apparatus so that all members will have an opportunity to don protective clothing.

While attending this year’s Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC), a point was brought to the floor during a formal business meeting concerning national fire magazines printing pictures of firefighters “at work” without protective clothing. All too often these pictures are of our nation’s firefighting backbone, the volunteer.

No national fire magazine, to my knowledge, has ever been elected to the office of chief or company officer in a volunteer fire department. Therefore, the answer to this unsafe practice, as far as I can see, lies in the STRENGTH of our elected officers. I wouldn’t want to be in the mental shoes of a chief watching one of his firefighters being airlifted to a burn center because I was too WEAK to mandate a policy and stick to it.

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