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Turnout gear. Bunkers. Whatever the term is that you use to describe your personal protective equipment (PPE), the objective has always been the same: protect. But while improvements in technology and progress in material science have led to the advanced PPE in use by firefighters today, new firefighter responsibilities, emerging threats and a richer understanding of firefighter injuries is forcing a reevaluation of what it means to protect fire personnel.
Where We've Been
The definition of what it means to fight fires - what it means to be a firefighter - has always evolved. The earliest firefighters fought fires from outside buildings - structures were rarely entered. As a result, early firefighter PPE was built for warmth and dryness, not fire protection. Felt caps, wool trousers, wool shirts and a long leather or rubber slicker thrown over the top of it all were the predecessors of today's modernized turnout gear. While the turnout gear worn by early firefighters helped shed water and protected against hazards such as debris, they provided minimal thermal protection.
As technology advances were made, firefighting tactics changed and firefighters were called to enter burning buildings, rather than fight fires from outside. Codes and standards for the protective clothing of firefighters developed by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to minimize the risks associated with firefighting, coupled with advances in fire-resistant materials, helped spur rapid development in protective gear from a number of manufacturers.
In 1973, the NFPA's Technical Committee on Protective Equipment for Fire Fighters began working on a preliminary standard for firefighter protective clothing that would later become NFPA 1971. The standard, which is revised periodically, specified the minimum design, safety, performance and certification requirements for firefighting PPE and required that all gear contain a fire-resistant outer layer, an inner layer to prevent against moisture and a third layer to provide thermal insulation. The requirements put forward by NFPA 1971 formed the basis of today's increasingly complex turnout gear. Developments in technology and materials led to modern turnout gear made from fire resistant fabrics - aramids such as Nomex and Kevlar - and polybenzimidazole (PBI) fibers.
The NFPA standards helped firefighters address their need for thermal protection; however, the definition of what it means to be a firefighter has evolved. The 21st century firefighter is being asked to do more than ever before - in fact, today a firefighter is more aptly described as a first responder. As firefighters are asked to do more, it is only natural that the gear that they wear address new responsibilities, new hazards and a new understanding of the causes of life-threatening injuries.
Estimates vary, but there is general agreement that more than 70% of the incidents that firefighters respond to do not involve "structural" firefighting. Firefighters are called on to respond to virtually any kind of natural disaster including - perhaps paradoxically - floods. Furthermore, firefighters are increasingly expected to provide a full range of emergency medical services, thereby introducing them to dangers such as blood-borne pathogens that emergency medical technicians are automatically equipped to face.
The acquisition of new responsibilities has not always been coupled with the acquisition of new PPE. Traditional turnout gear is heavy and designed with one purpose - thermal protection. Newer multi-purpose garments add liquid-chemical and liquid-pathogen resistance, which provides greater flexibility, but are not necessarily the best garments for any one task. In any case, the heavy gear can actually be counterproductive in certain situations and causes tremendous heat stress. Protecting firefighters from the challenges posed by new responsibilities is no simple task. Nevertheless, the industry as a whole needs to find a solution, because the new responsibilities are introducing serious new hazards.