The next cultural shift: When to wear structural gear

The fire service looks to expanding PPE options for non-structural fire incidents


There is much discussion in the fire service these days about changing the culture, that is, those elements of the culture that have an impact on firefighter health, safety and wellness. And nowhere is that discussion more pronounced than when talking about the use of PPE – more specifically, the structural firefighting protective ensemble, more commonly known as turnout gear or bunker gear.

In the last several years, many fire departments have been working to mitigate the hazards to their firefighters from the chemicals, chemical compounds and carcinogens present in today's structure fires, particularly from the smoke. To date, their work has focused on:

  • Getting members to wear PPE whenever working in the hazard area (from entry through their exit from the hazard area)
  • Conducting initial contamination reduction (formerly known as gross decon) upon exiting the hazard area
  • Isolating, bagging and transporting soiled PPE outside the crew cab of the apparatus
  • Laundering PPE upon return to the station
For non-structure fire calls, such as car fires, should the fire service consider a lighter version of PPE that's more like the flame-resistant jacket and pants ensemble worn by wildland firefighters or perhaps a multi-mission FR jumpsuit? (Photo/John Odegard)
For non-structure fire calls, such as car fires, should the fire service consider a lighter version of PPE that's more like the flame-resistant jacket and pants ensemble worn by wildland firefighters or perhaps a multi-mission FR jumpsuit? (Photo/John Odegard)

But there’s a new cultural shift occurring related to the use of structural turnout gear at non-fire incidents.

When to wear – and not wear – PPE

Of the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives, the first is focused on Cultural Change: “Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety, incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability, and personal responsibility.” The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) further describes what this means: “The safety culture within a fire department is reflected through its members’ behaviors, attitudes, and actions in and out of the station as well as on the fireground. The first initiative asks us to explore the characteristics of our departments to bring about a higher commitment to safety.”

We are slowly making the necessary cultural change about firefighters wearing dirty turnout gear. Where once soot-stained turnout gear and helmet shields were viewed as “badges of honor and courage,” now wearing clean gear following a working structure fire is becoming the new norm.

The other side of the same coin is naming when personnel should not wear their structural PPE. In the current culture – as seen in the actions of most fire departments –the structural firefighting protective ensemble is still the “one-size-fits-all option” for PPE for all emergency responses, from EMS calls to wildland/wildland-urban interface (WUI) fires to vehicle fires. But continuing this approach is akin to slicing bread with a chainsaw. Sure, it does the job, but isn't a bread knife a much safer, more effective and more efficient tool?

Laundering PPE

Laundering is important to PPE cleaning. It’s also important to remember that every run through the washer/extractor and drying cycle takes a toll on the outer shell and moisture barrier of your PPE. In 2018, Jeff and Grace Stull shared the article “Fundamental changes needed to address turnout gear contamination,” explaining the following:

“For most performance requirements as a prelude to testing, only five cycles of laundering are applied for garments. For one particular property – moisture barrier effectiveness – that number is increased to only 10 washing and drying cycles. Thus, if the expectation is that clothing is cleaned after every working fire, then some gear can be subjected to up to 25 cycles a year.

“Many manufacturers currently indicate that clothing generally has a service life ranging from five to seven years for a moderately busy department. While it is recognized that many components are indeed quite rugged and durable, there remains some uncertainty as to whether frequent cleaning will cause some degradation of clothing and equipment performance.”

While NFPA 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting specifies a maximum service life of 10 years for NFPA 1971-compliant structural PPE elements, that’s 10 years from the date of manufacture. How many times per year are individual sets of PPE coats and pants being laundered in your department? How are you tracking that information?

So, how do we get firefighters and fire officers to stop wearing their structural firefighting ensemble for anything other than a structure fire or for live-fire training? I believe the driving force necessary for such change must begin with providing a better array of PPE options, options based on the potential hazards presented by those other call types.

Expanding PPE options

When the industry is impacted by economic downturns, volunteer fire departments see their budgets decimated by drops in donations from individuals (because people haven't been working) as well as donations from corporations and businesses in their community, many of which have been shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This means budget “belt-tightening” for all fire departments. Most career fire chiefs are going to do all they can to retain personnel, but with personnel costs often accounting for between 80-95% of the budget, that's going to be a monumental task.

The new mantra for the fire service is going to be “necessity is the mother of innovation.” Looking at alternative PPE for their personnel is no longer a “nice to have” but rather a “must have” for every fire department.

A good place to start is making sure everyone is on the same page of the same book. The purpose of the structural firefighting protective ensemble is clearly defined in the name – to protect the firefighter from the thermal hazard and mechanical hazards of interior structural firefighting. And in the worst-case scenario, to attempt to give the wearer a decent chance of surviving a flashover. That's it.

Start your pursuit of alternative PPE options by defining your area’s response hazards. For example, for non-structure fire calls (e.g., car fires, wildland or WUI fires), would not a lighter version of PPE that's more like the flame-resistant jacket and pants ensemble worn by wildland firefighters be more appropriate? Or perhaps a multi-mission FR jumpsuit?

In situations like that, the firefighters don't need the same insulation from the thermal insult, like they do in a structure fire, but they do need protection from radiant heat and mechanical hazards.

Changes continue

The gradual cultural change in how firefighters view dirty turnout gear has been long in the making, and in many fire departments, still has a way to go. The next cultural change, reserving their structural firefighting PPE for only interior structural firefighting, is just as necessary and will take diligent effort on the part of fire service leaders and their firefighters.

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

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