Better gear helps cut down on injuries to Ohio firefighters

By Maggie Lillis
The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)
Copyright 2007 The Columbus Dispatch
All Rights Reserved  

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Lt. Vic Runkle was 3 feet from the baby's crib when a flash of flames forced him into a nearby bathroom.

The water pressure in his hose died and a bell sounded, indicating his oxygen supply was low.

"I figured I was dead," the veteran Columbus firefighter said of the November 1989 blaze in the Mithoff Street house.

He couldn't reach the 22-month-old girl.

After another burst of flames, Runkle was able to push himself down a set of stairs. By the time he reached safety, his wet gear was steaming from the heat, burning his arms, back, face and ears.

"I could feel it burning, I could feel my helmet going," he said. "You get to having the wet (gear) on and the heat starts baking you like a lobster."

It took six months for Runkle, now 56, to recover from his burns, but his injury put him in the ranks of hundreds of Ohio firefighters hurt in the line of duty each year.

Last year, 716 firefighters statewide suffered injuries ranging from burns and sprains to heart attacks and respiratory distress.

Battalion Chief Doug Smith said 25 Columbus firefighters were injured in the line of duty last year, 18 during fires and seven during training sessions.

On May 5, Firefighter Michael Ream burned his knees and ears while responding to an apartment-complex fire on Olentangy River Road. Ream, of Station 19 in Clintonville, declined to comment about his injuries.

Four Columbus firefighters have reported being injured so far this year, said Jack Reall, president of the Columbus firefighters union.

When Runkle started with the Columbus Fire Division 33 years ago, burns were an everyday occurrence. He said he's amazed by the high quality of equipment that firefighters use today.

Smith said division officials continually research how to make firefighting equipment as safe and efficient as possible.

Depending on how much it is used, the equipment usually lasts between three and five years, Smith said.

Each firefighter is outfitted with a pair of bunker pants, boots and gloves along with a fire coat, helmet and hood, all of which are protected in some way by the fabric Nomex.

Smith said that although Nomex is heat-resistant, it can burn if the temperature is hot enough. And, Runkle said, the newer equipment dehydrates firefighters faster.

Reall said the union analyzes burn trends to see whether operational or equipment errors are at fault and what changes can be made. Burns on the ear area are common because the hood material is thinner so that firefighters can hear.

Steam burns can occur when firefighters crawl and their wet knee padding is compressed and loses some of its insulating property.

"Some manufacturers use an impermeable material, but that reduces the heat release of the gear," Reall said. "You don't want it to contain too much heat. It's a constant balancing act."

According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were about 80,100 firefighter injuries in 2005.

The association annually surveys departments in communities of more than 50,000, including Columbus. Last year's findings will be released in November. Michael Carter, a statistician with the association, said that despite a slight increase in 2005, firefighter injuries nationwide have been going down.

"They are going to fewer fires, so there has been less injuries over the years," he said. "They are going to more nonfire emergencies."

Despite the pain of Runkle's burns, which required a 12-by-18-inch graft of skin taken from his upper thigh, the prospect of returning to work pushed him through recovery.

"I was anxious to get back," he said. "I wouldn't do anything else. I love my job."

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