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 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.

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.

The members on the hoseline knew how critical the situation was. People were dying as we worked. They began an aggressive attack, pushing into the blazing hall, dousing the stairway, then advancing room by room through the inferno that was threatening the building's occupants. They pushed into four rooms that way. As soon as the stream knocked down the flames, the firefighters crawled until they reached the room where the occupants were trapped behind their window bars.

Despite a valiant effort, I was too late for one of the occupants who succumbed to smoke. As the last room was knocked down, the nozzleman and his backup told me they had to get out, "NOW!" They had each suffered second-degree burns to their knees that would require treatment in the Burn Center and keep them out of work for weeks. My bunker pants, though discolored, had protected my knees entirely. I never felt any discomfort.

I doubt that the unfortunate occupant would have had any better chance of survival if the nozzle team had been wearing pants. I haven't seen too many companies make a better effort than they did that morning but the impact is being felt in other ways. The occupants of the other exposed apartments are benefitting from faster fire control below them and the firefighters themselves also benefit.

Since the adoption of the mandatory mask policy in the early 1980s, firefighter deaths from smoke have dropped dramatically. The FDNY used to suffer an average of six line-of-duty deaths a year, every year for 120 years, many of them smoke-related. Then, in the late 1980s and early '90s, our deaths dropped until in 1990 we had the first year in our department's history in which not one single firefighter was killed.

Since bunker gear has been in use in New York, our number of serious burns has been cut by nearly 80 percent! That's more than anecdotal evidence of their effectiveness.

Faster Control Of Fires

Other statistics speak loudly of the overall impact these improvements have made as well. One interesting measure is the time it takes to bring a working fire under control. This record has been kept in New York City for many years and has shown a steady decline, especially since the improvements that I've mentioned have been implemented. One number shows the time it takes to bring an "all hands" (all companies assigned on the first alarm: three engines, two ladders and a battalion chief at work) under control has dropped from about 26 minutes to under 15 minutes.

This dramatic cut may have other causes. For example, additional units are now dispatched earlier in the incident than previously but the net result is better for the building and the occupants. The "under control" signal is generally not transmitted until at least the primary search has been completed. One inference may be that searches are being completed much more quickly because more firefighters are able to do a better job of searching. In addition, the hoseline is penetrating to the seat of the blaze faster and stopping flame and smoke production. Each of these effects helps improve the chances of survival of any occupants and reduces property damage. The question is, at what cost to the firefighters?

Since 1993, the FDNY again has suffered under a wave of line-of-duty deaths. Some of these deaths have been for reasons similar to those in past years: being caught in building collapses, suffering a heart attack, even smoke inhalation.

Several of the more recent deaths, however, involved a relatively new phenomenon: firefighters being caught in rapidly developing fire conditions and burning to death. Most of these cases did not involve "overprotection" due to bunker clothing and hoods. In fact, the opposite may be true had some of these men been wearing bunker clothing and hoods, they may have survived. However, they were victims of tactics which emphasize getting in close to the fire for search and attack. This tactic is, as I pointed out, highly successful in terms of occupant survival, minimizing property loss and even in reducing firefighter deaths. (A smaller fire, promptly extinguished, is less threatening to firefighters than larger, out-of-control blazes.) The risk, however, is that firefighters working in close proximity to fires are quite literally walking a "tightrope." They are in the razor's edge with little margin for safety. They are getting in closer and sooner than ever before, and when things go wrong, they are farther from safety.

Recently, the FDNY began issuing protective hoods to its members for use at all structural fires, in compliance with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards. I have been wearing a hood at every run since 1986. I can verify their effectiveness. I can also testify to the fact that they are not magic. All the protective clothing in the world does not stop heat transfer to the body. Protective clothing only slows the rate at which heat is allowed to reach the skin. I have been burned through my hood and through my "state-of-the-art" protective coat, without direct flame contact.

Firefighters and fire officers must realize there is no substitute for proper tactics which balance the risks to firefighters compared to the potential benefits to occupants. Especially when implementing a new protective clothing initiative, there is the "Superman Syndrome" to deal with. Members must be made aware that their perceptions of their situation will be different than the reality, based on the changes to the warning signs they are used to. For example, with protective hoods, there is less sense of heat on the face and ears (yes, you can feel heat on both of these areas). A firefighter with a lot of experience looking for the old warning amounts of heat will be getting perilously close to danger if he or she is not aware of what the "new" danger level feels like with the hood on.

The key here, of course, is training. Firefighters must be made aware of what heat levels feel like through any piece of new gear. The best way to do this is in a controlled, reproducible training environment, where the experienced firefighter can first evaluate conditions without the new item and then again with the new item, then preferably again without it.

Lacking opportunities for such repetitive training, members must go out of their way to educate themselves about their "new" environment. At each opportunity at a working fire, take a moment to consciously observe what your perceptions of the surroundings are, then if the conditions permit, pull part of the hood away to evaluate conditions, based on your "old" standards. After the fire, talk with your partners about how things felt under the new conditions.

Never stop evaluating what you are seeing and feeling. Learn from each experience. Learn to protect yourself, so you can continue to protect others.

John Norman, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a captain with the FDNY, assigned to Rescue Company 1 in Manhattan. He is also an instructor at the Nassau County, NY, Fire Service Academy and lectures nationally on fire and rescue topics. Norman is the author of Fire Officer's Handbook of Tactics, which may be ordered by calling 800-752-9768.