Let's Lighten Up: Personal Protection In The Interzone

I'll preface this column by stating that it is NOT criticism for the sake of criticizing. On the contrary. This is about a health and safety concern germane to the fire service. This column is intended to be constructive. It is about the wearing of the...


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I'll preface this column by stating that it is NOT criticism for the sake of criticizing. On the contrary. This is about a health and safety concern germane to the fire service. This column is intended to be constructive. It is about the wearing of the appropriate personal protective clothing (PPC) and the use of the correct firefighting equipment (FFE) when operating at wildland and structural wildland interzone (SWI) fires.

7_97_swi1.jpg
Photo by Robert M. Winston
Firefighters haul three-inch structural hose through hundreds of feet of forest to reach a fire. Although they have shed their bunker gear, they are wearing heavy rubber boots, which cause rapid fatigue and blisters on the feet.

Your department may already use the correct PPC and FFE. Many departments do, especially in the western United States. However, in the rest of the country, many departments are still operating at wildland and SWI fires using the heavier-weight PPC and FFE that is properly designed for structural fire suppression operations.

It is not being suggested that every fire department purchase PPC and FFE that is designed for wildland and SWI fire operations. It would be unnecessary to make those expenditures if your department occasionally responds to small wildland and SWI fires that are a few feet off of a solid roadway and are easily handled with a small-diameter hose, shovels or brush brooms. This column is addressing those fire departments that encounter, or could encounter, significant fires of long duration (hours to days) that occur on terrain that requires personnel to exert a great deal of physical energy during extremes of weather conditions.

The justification for the purchase and use of PPC and FFE for wildland and SWI fire suppression is no different than it is for the purchase of FFE and PPC for structural, hazmat, EMS, USAR and the many other operations that the fire services perform. Each of these operations requires specific products designed for specific and successful uses. Depending on the manufacturer, the cost of outfitting a firefighter for structural operations, less the air mask, is around $1,000. That includes a helmet, bunker gear, boots and gloves. Again, depending on the manufacturer, the cost of PPC for wildland and SWI suppression can be less than $300, which includes lightweight gloves, helmet, turnouts and goggles. High-top leather work shoes are an additional cost and prices vary greatly.

Wildland Firefighter Fatalities on the Fireground by Nature of Fatal Injury 1981-1996

Federal and State Wildland Agencies Local Volunteer  Local Career Total
Heart attack 3 45 2 50
Internal trauma 29 6 1 36
Asphyxiation 25 2 1 28
Burns 16 5 3 24
Crushing 6 5 0 11
Electric shock 3 6 0 9
Heat stroke 0 1 2 3
Amputation 2 0 0 2
Stroke 2 0 0 2
Bleeding 0 2 0 2
Drowning 0 1 0 1
Fracture 1 0 0 1
Aneurysm 0 0 1 1
Total  87 73 10 170

Note: Another four deaths involved members of fire brigades of paper companies - three died from burns and one suffered a heart attack.
Source: National Fire Protection Association, 5/97

Take note of the heart attack fatalities on the fireground. Does this indicate that federal and state wildland firefighters are less prone to heart attacks than municipal (structural) firefighters? Heat stroke claimed three firefighters all municipal. Is there a correlation between wildland firefighters wearing lighter-weight gear and municipal/structural firefighters wearing the heavier structural gear? Note that, because of the nature of their work, wildland firefighters are generally very aerobically and physically fit people.

7_97_swi2.jpg
Photo by Robert M. Winston
Six firefighters, all in structural personal protective clothing and heavy rubber boots, at an extensive (about 300 acres) woods fire. When I saw these firefighters one hour later, they were exhausted, sweating and their faces were bright red.
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