Considerations for buying wildfire face and eye protection
By Gale Dashner
The Supply Cache, Inc.
When fighting wildfires, making sure you have proper facial protection — which includes mouth, nose, eyes and skin coverage — is a matter of life and death.
The most important pieces of wildland firefighting PPE protect your airway, skin and eyes, all of which are subject to serious damage while fighting a wildfire. For example inhaling fire pollutants and exposure to radiant heat can cause health problems, even death in extreme situations. Also, inhalation of noxious fumes may render you unconscious while firefighting.
And it's not just the air you should worry about — intensive exposure to heat through conductive, convective or radiant heat sources can cause serious burns to a firefighter’s skin and airway, and compromising your airway is potentially life threatening. Also, burns to the skin can cause permanent disfiguration; they are always painful and may even be severe enough to kill.
Firefighters can be saved from respiratory damage and even failure if they use proper facial protection. PPE for the face of a wildland firefighter ranges from simple handkerchief bandanas to more advanced CarbonX or Nomex face protectors known as "shrouds." The shrouds may be worn alone or can be worn with specialized particle mask filters inserted in them for extra protection. CarbonX and Nomex are both name brands of heat and flame resistant fibers that are used to create the protective fabrics. What you use depends on your needs, your department/agency’s needs and what your department/agency supplies you.
Also, remember to never use a wet shroud or bandana to cover your face with for protection as it could lead to steam evaporating from the material, rendering burns to the skin and lungs.
Maintaining the health of your eyes while fighting forest fires all day long in the hot sun will help you to focus longer on your task at hand. Safety goggles help keep smoke, ash, helicopter wash, radiant heat and UVB/UVA sunlight out of eyes.
Ultra Violet radiation, the same harmful rays that cause skin damage, can also cause damage to your eyes. Sunlight is often divided into UVA and UVB categories but your sunglasses, safety glasses and goggles should block both forms for ultimate protection.
To lessen eye strain in discordant lighting conditions, try different colors of lenses. Brown or grey lenses block out colors of light to varying degrees. Orange and yellow colored lenses have a unique function of making one’s vision crisper and clearer by blocking blue light which is the cause of smoke haze, thus making smoky and twilight fires easier to navigate through.
Your fire department or agency might require you goggles and safety glasses to meet a specific ANSI-rating. These ratings are highly accessible while searching for eye protection. (The NFPA also certifies goggles.)
Wearing PPE to protect your face and eyes is just as essential as carrying your fire shelter. Your PPE should be worn and used, not just carried around with you on every fire. Goggles may look pretty on top of a hard hat but they do little good sitting on top of your brain pan. Be proactive about your safety. Your health matters and what you do to secure your own well-being when in the field will help you be a successful firefighter.
Gale Dashner spent four years as a wildland firefighter at the Department of Natural Resources in Minnesota and three years on a helitack crew in Colorado before joining The Supply Cache, Inc. The company was formed in 1990 in Colorado by two wildland firefighters, Jim and Diane Felix, and supplies a range of wildland gear. For more details, go to Firecache.com.