Let's Lighten Up: Personal Protection In The Interzone

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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.

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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.

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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.

FFE should be of the lightweight type that is designed specifically for wildland and SWI fire suppression. The use of the heavier-weight FFE that is designed for structural fire suppression should be phased out. Stretching hundreds or even thousands of feet of heavy structural fire hose through wildlands on a hot day can cause heat stress and exhaustion, or worse, to even the fittest firefighters. This is compounded when structural PPC is worn at these fires. Structural PPC limits the ability of the human body to lose heat through normal sweat evaporation.

Firefighter Fatality

According to International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF)/National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) investigation report excerpts: On Sept. 6, 1990, a 25-year-old career firefighter from the Sedgwick County, KS, Fire Depart-ment was operating at an extensive brush and debris fire. The temperature was in the mid-90s and the fire was fought for three hours before control was established. Many junked cars were also involved in fire. The fire began at 10:30 A.M. and final overhaul was completed by 9:13 P.M. The firefighter was wearing full bunker PPC due to the possibility of exploding gasoline tanks in the junked cars. This young firefighter, who was in good physical condition, died at this fire.

According to the Sedgwick County Coroner, the primary cause of the death of the firefighter was heat stroke. Factors that contributed to his death were exposure to hot ambient temperature, a high radiant heat load and performance of moderate to heavy work while wearing protective clothing.

NIOSH investigators concluded that a preventable series of events preceded the firefighter's death: "The two most serious heat-related illnesses (injuries) are heat exhaustion and heat stroke. According to the NIOSH document Occupational Exposure to Hot Environments, 1986, symptoms of heat exhaustion include fatigue, nausea, headache, dizziness, pallor and thirst … Heat stroke is the more serious condition and is considered a medical emergency. Symptoms are hot, red, dry skin, a high (104 degrees) temperature, confusion, convulsion which can lead to shock, kidney failure and death if not immediately treated."

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The long dry summer of 1995 developed into a drought condition for New England and New York State. Numerous wildland and SWI fires occurred throughout the region, including back-to-back large-acreage fires in Long Island's Pine Barrens (see "Long Island Wildfires," June 1996). Structural fire departments in Massachusetts, just north of Boston in and around Salem, had a very difficult time fighting numerous large-acreage wildland and SWI fires. They were not equipped with PPC and FFE designed for these types of fires. Salem Fire Chief Robert Turner said, "In my 28 years on the job, I have never seen anything like this situation. We operate large pumpers, use large hose and my firefighters wear heavy bunker gear, all designed for structural fires. We are not prepared for this kind of brushfire work."

What To Wear?

Chief William C. Teie, who retired after 34 years with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF), is the author of Firefighter's Handbook On Wildland Firefighting (Deer Valley Press, 1994). In the book he writes:

Firefighter Deaths in Wildland Fires by Region 1981-1996

Region    Number of Deaths
North Central   31
Northeast  22
South 80
West  116
Total  249

Source: National Fire Protection Association, 5/97

Firefighter Deaths Associated with Wildland Fires* 1981-1996

Wildland Firefighters Municipal Firefighters
1981 8 8
1982 3 3
1983 4 10
1984 5 12
1985 5 10
1986 7 8
1987 14 8
1988 8 12
1989 6 9
1990 15 6
1991 5 7
1992 5 7
1993 1 6
1994 28 5
1995 5 9
1996 0 6

*Includes deaths at the fireground and deaths while responding to or returning from wildland fires.

Source: National Fire Protection Association, 5/97

"If you are not properly dressed and equipped, you have no business fighting fire. Wear only approved safety clothing ... or wear cotton material. Do not wear synthetic materials; they will melt when heated and increase the likelihood of major injury … Experience has shown that a single layer of protective clothing is not enough if a firefighter is exposed to extreme heat. Firefighting safety gear is designed not to burn or melt. But it can and does transfer heat to the skin. The most practical second layer of clothing is the firefighter's undergarments. These should be made of cotton (no synthetics or blends) and must cover the whole body. Your first impression is that this will be too hot. But this layer of clothing will "wick" moisture away from the body and help to cool it."

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Photo by Robert M. Winston
Members of a California wildland fire crew wear correct personal protective clothing for the situation. This includes lightweight helmets with Nomex shrouds, goggles, fire-retardant wildland jackets and pants, high-top leather boots, leather gloves, and waist belts carrying fire shelters and water for rehydration.

Boots. "You must have appropriate footwear. Your boots should be made of leather, be of a lace-up type, with at least eight-inch tops and heavy lugged soles. Hard leather toes provide adequate protection. Boots with steel toes and steel puncture-proof soles will 'hold' heat longer, once heated."

Helmet. "The best type is one that provides protection from falling objects and is light-weight. Structural firefighting helmets can be worn but are usually heavier and can be tiring if worn for very long periods of time."

Gloves. "Should be made of leather, fit well, and be long enough so that a gap does not exist between the shirt sleeve and the glove. They should have a 'gauntlet' attached to the glove that protects the wrist area."

Goggles. "Protection of the eyes is very important. You should have a good set of goggles that fit well and can easily accommodate your eyeglasses." (Editor's note: Eye protection is always recommended during any type of firefighting operations. Serious injuries, even blindness, can result from eyes coming in contact with sharp brush or tree branches. Full pull-down face shields are also suggested when operating at wildland and SWI fires. This is especially important if firefighters are riding on brushfire apparatus during pump-and-roll fire suppression operations.)

Hood or shroud. "A hood or shroud is used to keep heat off your ears, neck and face. The hood is pulled over the face (and head); a shroud is attached to your helmet. They are usually made of Nomex or Kevlar." (Editor's note: A recently developed and greatly improved type of a face shroud has become available to firefighters. It is called a Hot Shield and, along with a newly developed fire shelter, will be the subject of a future column.)

Turnout gear. "If turnout gear (coat, pants, boots) is all you have, you should wear them. You will be limited by this bulky gear but don't fight fire without safety gear. If this is all you have, work with the fire chief to obtain proper wildland firefighting safety clothing. Also remember that wildland firefighting gear is not a replacement for turnouts. Do not attempt to fight a structure fire with the lighter-weight wildland gear." (Editor's note: The appropriate protective outer clothing for wildland and SWI firefighting is the brush jacket or shirt that is made from approved fire-resistive materials like fire-retardant cotton or Nomex that is specifically designed for this use.)

I would add the following to the information from Teie's book:

PASS devices. Structural firefighters normally think of personal alert safety system (PASS) devices as being used just for structure fire operations. These lifesaving devices should also be worn on the PPC during wildfire operations. A PASS device could save your life should you become unconscious or otherwise incapacitated at an incident.

Being Properly Equipped

In summation, federal wildland firefighters who are wearing wildland PPC are prohibited from entering burning structures to fight fire. They are not properly equipped for structural fire suppression. Yet, structural firefighters who are wearing structural PPC and using heavier-weight structural fire hose (as compared to the lighter-weight forestry hose) routinely fight extensive and difficult wildland and SWI fires. It would appear that this is an important firefighter occupational health and safety consideration.

If the subject matter of this article applies to you and to your fire department, it is suggested that a review of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1977, Wildland Firefighter Protective Clothing and Equipment, and NFPA Standard 1051, Professional Qualifications for Wildland Firefighting, be read for advice and direction.

So, "let's lighten up!" Let's work smarter and be healthier and safe in the structural wildland interzone arena.


Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a district chief in the Boston Fire Department.

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