Beliefs and Expectations for Protective Clothing

By Jeffrey O. and Grace G. Stull

Each year, fires cause millions of dollars in damage and thousands of firefighters are injured and worse, some lose their lives. Firefighters believe that by wearing the best protective clothing and equipment, they will remain safe under most circumstances. And yet, injuries do occur and sometimes these injuries can be severe. During the holiday season, we are reminded of being thankful for our security and health. It is our hope that this appreciation extends to the protection we benefit from, together with our understanding that this protection is not completely guaranteed. Having realistic expectations will govern exactly how well we act to maintain that safety.

Historically, firefighting clothing has not always provided the levels of protection that it does today. There have been substantive changes in the types of requirements that clothing must meet over the past 30 years and the manufacturing industry has evolved its materials and designs accordingly. It was not too long ago that the fire service embraced protective pants and hoods, replacing long coats and hip boots and using their ears as early warning heat detection devices.

Before that time, key parts of the firefighter's body were vulnerable to several fireground hazards, namely high heat and flame contact. This lower protection, accepted at the time, tempered the expectations for how far firefighters might go into a burning structure and how long they might stay under adverse exposure conditions.

It has only been in the past couple of decades that the fire service has had the benefits of higher performing protective clothing to enable interior fire operations. Yet, as each new advance in protective clothing technology takes place to provide firefighters a renewed level of safety for an expected depth and time for entry, the envelope keeps being pushed out as the newly found capabilities are interpreted as being safer to go even farther and longer. These beliefs can lead to injury and they are sometimes beyond the reasonable expectations for performance.

Consider the implementation of hoods in the fire service. Protective hoods generally entered the fire service as early as in the 1970s but did not become formalized in the NFPA 1971 standard until 1991. The fire service was already learning to be more encapsulated in wearing a full outfit of pants and coat together with self-contained breathing apparatus.

Even with the collar deployed and with ear covers provided by the helmets (early on most helmets did not have ear cover), portions of the firefighter's face were left exposed to the effects of high heat and possible flame impingement. Firefighters were trained to rely on their ears for sensing when events got out of control. A person's ears having a relatively large surface area and extending away from the head were an early warning mechanism.

The belief was that firefighters needed a portion of their body where they could "feel" the environment and make judgments about their stay time and need to exit. But the reality is that many firefighters suffered disfiguring burns to their ears and parts of their face because circumstances could overwhelm them and mistakes were made in judging the environment. The belief that firefighters could and would extract themselves before being burned was counter to the expectation that firefighters would only operate on the fireground within the limitations of their protective gear.

Interestingly, one major U.S. department fought the introduction of hoods as part of their ensemble. Part of its criticism was founded on the belief that wet hoods were more dangerous than having no hood at all. It took a major effort by a leading medical authority within the department in conjunction with qualified researchers to show that the wearing of hoods always provided greater protection than no hood, whether wet or dry, under a wide range of exposure conditions.

Expectations were developed to reflect reality and the full introduction of hoods lessened facial and head burns. Firefighters had to rely on other training and methods of situational awareness to recognize when they had gone too deep and too long in the fire building. Some departments have gone in almost entirely different directions using multilayered hoods in place of the more common two ply knit hoods to afford drastically increased levels of head and face protection.

Another good example to contrast fire service beliefs about protective clothing with actual expectations comes in the form of protective gloves. Protective gloves are sometimes regarded as the commodity element of the overall firefighter ensemble, which are more frequently replaced and in some instances not even compliant with the prevailing NFPA 1971 standard (use of non-compliant gloves occurs at much higher rates than any other part of the ensemble — garments, helmets and footwear).

The belief is that gloves will protect the hands as well as the body, particularly if these gloves through their bulkiness restrict dexterity and hand function. In fact, protecting the hands to the same degree as the body is a tall task. Hands have a lot of surface area, but very little volume, so their ability to dissipate heat to other parts of the body is very limited. Combine that with the fact that firefighters will be using their hands holding hoses, using tools, and handling equipment on the fireground, typically in front of their bodies toward the hazard, makes for a more difficult challenge.

There are many firefighters who believe that coming up with the "right" glove is just a matter of making the right choices in tradeoffs for heat insulation versus hand function versus physical protection versus keeping the hands dry. Yet, the expectation should be that gloves can be a limiting part of the ensemble's protection and that departments have to be very careful about making their glove selections to ensure the right balance of protection and operability.

Beliefs founded in tradition can be important, but with ever changing technology affecting the way that firefighters protect themselves, it's just as critical that proper expectations be formed. Expectations need to allow the fire service to appropriately judge clothing limitations and understand more accurately the capabilities their gear extends to their safety. All beliefs and expectations should be based on the reality of protection.

In this magical month of December, where communities are aglow with Christmas lights, our family wishes y'all a Safe and Merry Christmas and may your holiday be joyful!

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