How to conduct a firefighter PPE risk assessment

Identifying firefighter hazards, response area features and potential operations help in PPE selection


By Robert P. Avsec

Most firefighters and officer should be informed and educated about what a risk assessment is and why it's a vital component in making emergency operations safer, more effective and more efficient. Conducting a risk assessment forces the incident commander to identify the risks to civilians and firefighters, prioritize those risks and develop an incident action plan that addresses those risks as part of the overall incident management strategy.

One of the key factors in reducing those on-scene risks to fire department personnel is personal protective equipment (PPE). But before fire department leaders select the PPE their personnel will use, they should conduct a risk assessment to ensure that the gear they select is the right gear for the job.

Why conduct a PPE risk assessment?

NFP 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting, specifies that a fire department conduct a risk assessment before selecting PPE for its people. (Photo/U.S. Air Force by Senior Airman Tessa B. Corrick)
NFP 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting, specifies that a fire department conduct a risk assessment before selecting PPE for its people. (Photo/U.S. Air Force by Senior Airman Tessa B. Corrick)

If a fire department purchases a structural firefighting ensemble that’s compliant with NFPA 1971: Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, everything should be OK, right?

Sure, if one size fits all – which we know is not the case.

When a fire department conducts a systematic risk assessment for the purposes of selecting the right PPE for its personnel, it means identifying the particular hazards that their personnel may encounter in the course of their duties. It then describes the appropriate levels of personal protection necessary for the firefighters to operate safely, effectively and efficiently when those hazards may be present.

NFP 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting, specifies that a fire department conduct a risk assessment before selecting PPE for its people. In Chapter 5 (Selection), the standard clearly articulates the criteria that should be used for that risk assessment. The explanatory material contained in Annex A of the standard is equally expansive in helping a fire department’s leaders to develop and complete a good risk assessment prior to selecting PPE for purchase (and not just structural firefighting gear, though that is a large part of the standard).

But remember, NFPA standards are not laws or regulations (two common misconceptions). They are consensus standards developed by Technical Committees composed of representatives from the fire service, manufacturers, vendors and allied fire service organizations. Fire departments are not required to follow NFPA standards.

OSHA 29 CFR 1910.132, Personal Protective Equipment: General Requirements, provides the regulatory requirement for conducting a risk assessment before selecting PPE for purchase and before being placed in service.

“Protective equipment, including personal protective equipment for eyes, face, head, and extremities, protective clothing, respiratory devices, and protective shields and barriers, shall be provided, used, and maintained in a sanitary and reliable condition wherever it is necessary by reason of hazards of processes or environment, chemical hazards, radiological hazards, or mechanical irritants encountered in a manner capable of causing injury or impairment in the function of any part of the body through absorption, inhalation or physical contact.”

The OSHA standard goes on to require that all PPE must be safely designed and constructed for the work that will be done using the PPE. To that end, OSHA 1910.132 requires that the employer assess the workplace (and for fire departments, workplace includes the emergency scene) to identify hazards or potential hazards that require the use of PPE. The employer should then select and ensure that the affected employees use the types of PPE that will protect them from the hazards identified in the hazard assessment.

Criteria for PPE risk assessment

NFPA 1851 provides detailed requirements to include in your PPE risk assessment:

  • Duties. What types of duties will personnel conduct while wearing the ensemble or ensemble element? (e.g., laying and connecting hose lines; carrying, placing, and climbing ladders; holding nozzles and directing fire streams; operating fire apparatus).
  • Frequency. How frequently will personnel use the firefighting ensemble or ensemble element? What are the numbers and types of fires that the department responded to? What are the numbers and types of non-fire calls that department responded to (e.g., hazardous material emergencies, motor vehicle crash extrications, EMS calls, technical rescue emergencies).
  • Satisfaction. What are the experiences of individuals using the ensemble or ensemble elements? This part of your assessment should have each departmental member rate their level of satisfaction with the ensemble components of their existing turnout gear.
  • Operations. What types of incident operations do departmental personnel engage in? Firefighting? (e.g., interior fire attack, exterior fire attack, primary and secondary searches). Rescue/EMS? (e.g., extrication with hydraulic/power tools, providing BLS/ALS treatment, urban search and rescue, trench rescue, high-angle rescue, confined space rescue, hazardous materials).
  • Response area topography. Where is your department located geographically? What’s the topography of the area? What type of climate is typical of the area?
  • Response area features. Does the department have any specific physical areas of operation that have an influence on what protective gear is needed? For example, an urban department with numerous highways and roadways in its service area will have different PPE needs than a rural department that has less heavily traveled country roads. A coastal fire department with many waterways in its response area will likely need PPE that includes personal floatation devices.
  • CBRN. What’s the likelihood of a response to a CBRN terrorism incident?
  • Hazard/risk identification. What types of risk (e.g., physical, biological, chemical, radiological, thermal, environmental) can personnel potentially be exposed to?
  • Hazard/risk evaluation. For those identified potential risks, what’s the probability of personnel being exposed to each risk?
  • Establishing priorities. What does the department expect from each protective ensemble component?

Personal protective gear is some of the most important equipment that any fire department must purchase and provide for its personnel. Make sure that your department’s selection and purchasing decisions are made after a complete risk assessment to determine if the personnel protective gear elements under consideration match up well with the anticipated hazards that the protected individual may encounter.

The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsor.

This article, originally published March 12, 2019, has been updated.

 

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