Two Decades Of Changes In Protective Clothing

As Firehouse ® celebrates the 20th anniversary of its founding, I am prompted to review some of the changes that have taken place in the fire service during my 26 years as a firefighter. Advances have been made in apparatus, equipment, communications...


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As Firehouse® celebrates the 20th anniversary of its founding, I am prompted to review some of the changes that have taken place in the fire service during my 26 years as a firefighter. Advances have been made in apparatus, equipment, communications and many other areas. But few have had the impact that changes in protective clothing have had. "Fine," you say, "but what has that got to do with fireground tactics?" The answer is "Plenty!"

It was only one generation ago that American firefighters wore cotton/canvas coats, three-quarter-length boots, helmets and little else. Gloves and masks were not always used. The gloves offered little heat protection, some even melted onto hot objects, causing extra burns to firefighters' hands. Masks were heavy (36 pounds), difficult to see out of and difficult to breathe through. Sound familiar? Besides, "tough guys" didn't need that stuff.

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Photo by Ray Tucker
A firefighter in Montgomery County, MD, dons a protective hood before preparing to make entry at a recent house fire. Changes in protective clothing have had a major impact on the fire service in the past two decades.

Today, as bunker gear approaches the near universal acceptance level that self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) has achieved, fireground tactics have evolved to keep pace with the changing technology available. From the day-to-day operational point, these subtle changes may be hard to observe but they are there and firefighters and officers must recognize the impact they have had and will continue to have.

As I said, some of these changes have been rather subtle and it is difficult to appreciate their true impact until forced to do without the new method. As an example, a few years ago, I found myself on a fourth-floor fire escape balcony, outside a heavily charged top-floor apartment, two floors above the fire, when my SCBA malfunctioned. Since a mandatory mask policy had been in place for several years, I was no longer used to "taking a good feed," and should not have entered the building. But this situation was really serious; fire was exposing the interior stairway, cutting off the occupants' escape that way, and the closed windows on the fire escape told me they hadn't come out that way either, so it "seemed like a good idea at the time" for me to enter the apartment without the mask and do things the way we did it in the "good old days."

After calling for reinforcements to my position, I vented all the windows I could reach from the fire escape, then climbed in the nearest one and began my search. I got about six feet over to the next window where I grabbed another breath of outside (not fresh) air and headed deeper into the apartment, looking for victims and more windows. I got into the bathroom without finding either and then was forced to return to the window for another breath. I was soon joined by other members with working SCBA who quickly bypassed me and finished the search. To them it was just a routine job. To me, though, that one fire crystallized in my mind the difference the mask makes. I was a "tough guy," at least I used to be, and these guys with masks walked right over my back.

A similar situation occurred about three years ago, just as the FDNY was implementing its bunker gear program. I was covering captain working in an engine company whose members had yet to be issued bunker pants. I had mine because I had been promoted from a unit that was among the first issued them.

At 3 o'clock in the morning, we arrived first due to find fire blowing out of the two ground-floor front windows and the front door of a three-story occupied multiple dwelling. Frantic neighbors nearly pulled me from the cab, screaming that people were trapped in the rear of the fire apartment. They could hear them screaming and pounding on the walls of the adjoining apartment. As much as I wanted to go around to the rear with them to attempt a direct approach, I knew that the other five apartments in the building were severely exposed. We desperately needed the hoseline to advance through the front door to the public hall and control the fire within the apartment.

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