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The fire starts on a sofa or in the wastepaper basket in the corner of a room. It grows exponentially, igniting the carpet, the curtains, the walls and other items. The room starts to get hotter and hotter, the fire bigger and bigger. Surfaces in the room begin to break down and emit flammable gasses. Suddenly and without warning, the entire room bursts into flames.
This is a flashover - an event that occurs when gases produced from the combustion of materials become hot enough to ignite - typically 1,000 to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. It is also, as most firefighters know, a danger that has become more prevalent due to new construction practices that trap heat better and the increased use of plastics in homes.
When a flashover or other extreme fire event occurs, the firefighter's last line of defense is his or her personal protective equipment (PPE). Increasingly, however, firefighters and their PPE are being required to do more than just fight fires; work practices now require prolonged use of the PPE in non-structural-fire activities.
"As a fire officer, my first concern in personal protective equipment is to have the best possible protection from fire and burn injuries," said Kristina Kreutzer, assistant fire chief at the Mill Creek Volunteer Fire Company in Marshallton, DE. "However, while I need my PPE to protect against increasingly intense fires, I also need PPE that addresses the unique and often mutually exclusive challenges of non-fire related emergencies."
The threat of extreme fires makes it more important than ever for firefighters to understand how thermal protection is incorporated into turnout gear. However, because of the expanding role of firefighters in non-fire-related emergencies, it is also important to recognize that PPE that only delivers thermal protection is no longer enough. As a result, firefighters also need to understand how new developments, such as the introduction of Nomex On Demand - new "smart" fire-resistant fiber - are helping to create turnout gear that addresses the full scope of the challenges they face.
Forty years ago, before DuPont introduced Nomex, the first flame-resistant fiber to be used in firefighter gear, the vast majority of firefighter injuries and deaths were attributable to burns. Today, however, burns account for only 4% of firefighter deaths and related injuries because of technology advances in the PPE and improved work practices. Thirty-nine percent, by contrast, are caused by exertion and stress.
Why has the ratio changed so dramatically? Firefighters are doing much more with the same PPE than just fight fires today. These garments provide excellent protection against the high-temperature environments encountered during structural firefighting, but now must also be functional for longer tasks such as EMS and vehicle extrications.
"Our company responded to 4,250 emergencies in 2008," said Kreutzer. "Only 1,101, or about a quarter, were fire-rescue-related, and only 217 of those were fires."
But while today's challenges place new burdens on firefighters and turnout gear, thermal protection remains the most important factor. "As a practical matter, the threats that kill you quickest are the ones that are most important and need to be dealt with first," adds Kreutzer.
A Look Inside Your Turnout Gear
Every turnout coat features three components: an outer-shell, a moisture barrier and a thermal liner. Advanced flame-resistant fibers such as Nomex and Kevlar are incorporated at each level to help maximize thermal protection, durability and flexibility and to minimize heat stress.
The outer-shell protects the inner components from thermal hazards, abrasion, sunlight and other factors. It accomplishes this through flame-resistant filaments and other fibers engineered together to form composite materials that stand up to heat and are highly durable.