You & Your Bunker Gear — Part 1

 

There are few more important pieces of equipment than our bunker gear. Sometimes, it is the only thing between us and the fire.

Fire equipment, apparatus and tools are being scrutinized by city hall in an attempt to save money. While we appreciate the need to be "good stewards" of taxpayer dollars, when it comes to the equipment we use to protect the public, and especially the equipment that protects us, make sure the quality and features of what you are purchasing are the priority. Be sure those participating and making those fiscal decisions genuinely understand the importance of your bunker gear.

It is vitally important for every one of us to ensure that the specifications and performance of our bunker gear meet the fire conditions we are likely to encounter. And that's the trick. Some will tell you that you don't need "those kinds of features" in your gear because your department doesn't do that much fire duty. That foolish logic can end in tragic results. If your department or company does one working fire annually or 10,000 working fires annually, it is at that one fire that you, your training and your equipment will be tested. We are the fire department, we go to fires and we must be protected. Make sure your bunker gear specs are the top priority of your organization. Departments spend so much time on items such as apparatus specs, but also make sure your personal protective equipment (PPE) and those specifications are as important to your department as apparatus specs. And make sure your firefighters properly and fully use the PPE they are issued.

Whatever "it" is: if you are issued it, train on it, use it, wear it and maintain it. use and wear your equipment in any conditions where it may be needed. For example, since your apparatus has seatbelts, use them (and figure out how before you go on a run). Since your apparatus has self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) for your use, wear it to protect yourself from breathing bad stuff during and after (overhaul) the fire. Since your department issues you bunker gear and PPE (helmet, chin strap, hood, coat, pants, gloves and boots), if you do not wear them or you do not wear them properly, there is no one else to blame for the outcome if related to your failure to wear. (Most often, it's not that PPE is not worn, but that PPE is not worn properly.)

In this month's close call, it is clear that this FDNY firefighter fully understood the importance of his bunker gear and the fact that it must be fully worn in order for him to do his job. Our thanks to FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano; Chief of Department Edward Kilduff; Deputy Assistant Chief Stephen Raynis, chief of safety, FDNY Safety Command; Battalion Chief Robert Albanese, executive officer, Safety and Inspection Safety Command; Firefighter Peter Demontreux of Ladder Company 132; and the fire officers and firefighters involved in this event.

The following account is provided by the FDNY Safety Command:

At approximately 4:30 A.M. on Aug. 30, 2010, FDNY units responded to a reported fire in a 20-by-50-foot, three-story brownstone-type multi-family dwelling. The building had four stories in the rear. The fire originated in the second-floor hallway approximately 10 feet inside the front door. Fire quickly extended up the open unenclosed stairway to the third and fourth floors.

The OV (outside vent firefighter) was told by the incident commander, Battalion Chief Ed Travers of Battalion 57, that a civilian was last seen at a third-floor front window on the exposure-D side. The chauffeur positioned the aerial ladder to the window. The OV, with properly donned PPE, climbed the aerial and removed a trapped civilian from this window and assisted him down the aerial ladder. The civilian told the OV another person was still in the apartment. The OV donned his facepiece and hood and entered the fire area to search for the second person. Another firefighter, now positioned on the tip of the aerial ladder, completely cleared out the window to allow for a rapid egress.

The OV made his way through the fire apartment, locating the trapped civilian at a rear window. With conditions rapidly deteriorating, waiting for a portable ladder or life-saving rope was not an option. The OV assisted the civilian back to the front room, which was now involved in fire and venting out the front windows. The OV and civilian crouched down and rapidly made their way to the window where the aerial ladder was positioned. The OV shielded the civilian from the fire as much as possible while removing him onto the aerial. Firefighters on the aerial assisted the civilian as the OV dove head-first out of the fire apartment onto the aerial. Both the civilian's clothes and the OV's bunker gear were on fire. A hoseline in the street was directed onto the civilian and OV to extinguish fire and cool them.

The OV sustained second-degree burns to his back and first-degree burns to his face. His bunker gear was examined by the Safety Battalion and found to be subjected to heat in excess of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Without question, the OV would have received life-threatening burns had he not properly worn all of his PPE.

The following lessons learned or reinforced include comments from Chief Goldfeder related to this close call:

1.To effectively furnish the desired level of protection, all elements of the PPE must be worn properly. While it is easy to drop your collar, ignore your helmet strap and not close your coat completely, sometimes your actions may be required in seconds — allowing you no time to prepare. Therefore, prepare before entering any potential immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) area.

2. PPE purchasing must be taken seriously. Ordering "whatever" bunker gear may be fine 99% of the time, but it's the 1% that can get us. The FDNY spends exhaustive time on the specification, research, development and work with the manufacturer of its bunker gear. FDNY safety leadership does so as if members' lives depend on it because, clearly, their lives do. Unfortunately, that is not the case in many fire departments. Take time to develop a spec that represents an informed and educated fire department, develop a spec that is designed for your members' comfort — but also for the members' protection.

3. Bunker gear should be kept clean. Dirty bunker gear can absorb more heat, causing the degree of protection to become reduced, and may actually cause the material to ignite. All FDNY members must follow the cleaning schedule set up by the department to have both sets of bunker gear cleaned annually. Some departments may not be able to issue all members two sets of bunker gear, so it is then even more critical to immediately clean your gear following any working fire to remove soot and related carcinogens. Not only do these "products of combustion" significantly lessen the protection your PPE affords, they are packed with cancer-causing particles.

4. Bunker gear, when properly used and maintained, affords a limited period of protection to exit an area that has become, or is about to become, untenable. In a flashover situation, bunker-gear equipped members must be within five to 10 feet of an exit in order to survive. While we are all so busy these days with inspections, public education details, EMS re-certs, etc., how often do your members do "hands-on" training to ensure they are confident in their interior structural firefighting skills?

5. Before entering a window for a search, completely remove the window and crosspieces to provide unimpeded egress. As you were taught in probie school, "completely clear out the window."

6. Aerial ladders, when properly positioned, allow for unimpeded access and egress at a window. The ladder tip should be less than six inches over the window sill. The qualifications, training and experience of your aerial operator will clearly be tested at the next working fire when the ladder must be placed. How often do your aerial operators do "hands-on" training to ensure they are confident in their skills?

7. The aerial ladder should not be moved without approval of the member conducting the search. Command, control and communications are critical for a successful fireground operation. How good were the communications between the engine (hoseline) crews, interior truck crews, search crews and companies/operators operating outside at your last significant fire? What would happen if the above close call occurred at your department?

8. Firefighters, officers and chiefs (including coordination between the incident commander and those operating) must weigh risk versus reward for all operations and it is important to understand this is often not just a "one-person" decision. At this fire, the incident commander notified the firefighters that there were victims. The information by the chief clearly affirms the risk-versus-reward scenario. If the chief advises there are victims, the expectation is that those victims must be searched for unless you are provided with, are told or have conflicting information — which then must be relayed. This particular operation had a high risk, but also a high reward. A life was saved and the actions of the firefighter who made the rescue and others operating at the scene clearly paid off. Without question, we are (and must be) willing to risk a lot to save a lot, but it is the other side of that coin, risking a lot when there is nothing worth saving, that we see as the focal point in many line-of-duty deaths. Training, adequate resources before the run comes in, strong command leadership, and operational guidelines and procedures are essential for the best shot at a successful fireground rescue and operation. While rescues are not the norm and are rare, we must be ready to act as if we may have to perform them at our very next fire.

9. Operating the "FDNY way." The FDNY has operating procedures and orders that clearly direct the roles and responsibilities of all members operating on the fireground. Unlike many departments, the FDNY has enough staffing on the first (and subsequent) alarms so engines can do engine work, trucks can do truck work and special operations/special services companies can do their work while each of those companies also supports and protects the other companies, as required.

Many organizations and individual companies attempt to emulate the FDNY, but while the FDNY does have much to offer any department due to its experience and history, it is critical that every department look at the specific risks in the community it protects and ensure that resources match the job it may be required to do. While the FDNY may turn out with 30-plus firefighters for a dwelling fire, if a department that wants to emulate FDNY procedures is turning out with only 10–15 firefighters, that "emulation" is inappropriate and dangerous because of the differences in resources and risks protected. What has worked at the FDNY for years is certainly successful and may be a model for others (while always being evaluated and updated as FDNY's communities, buildings and risks change), it is critical that you make sure the risks you protect are properly matched with the resources you turn out with — and that your policies provide for your needs based on the specific fire type and conditions.

Determining what works best in your community and understanding that conditions and resources must be matched will help ensure a successful outcome so that our goal of "everyone going home" is reached in almost all cases. In this close call, that FDNY firefighter clearly understood his personal and professional responsibility (as he was trained) to wear all of his bunker gear, all the time, the correct way — because five minutes before that fire came in, he had no idea just how important that decision would be.

Next month, you will read the personal account of this close call from Firefighter Peter Demontreux. You will learn about the specific details of his heroic rescue and the critical importance his skills, his training and his bunker gear (and the proper use and wearing of his bunker gear) played in the positive outcome for him and the trapped victim.

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at BillyG@FirefighterCloseCalls.com.

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