3 Considerations for Establishing A PPE Officer Program

Sept. 1, 2005

If your fire department has identified the need for a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Officer Program, your initial investigations have no doubt helped you to realize that you're facing a variety of issues and concerns. Three of the most important considerations relate to firefighter health, firefighter safety, and the department's budget.

Whether you finally establish the PPE Officer by battalion, shift or department, these concerns will need your attention. The purpose of this column is to help you have some perspective as you work your way through the challenging, but rewarding, process ahead of you.

Health. We take our health for granted, working 20 to 30 years for a fire department and expecting our health to be waiting for us when we retire. But our health is more delicate than we want to acknowledge, and at particular risk in this profession. Ultimately, every member of a fire department, whether volunteer or paid, is responsible for the health of every other member. We practice working in pairs by way of the "two-in/two-out" rule, for example, or by working in a group as part of the incident management system. We should approach the PPE program by paying similar attention to individual firefighter health. To protect our health, we can start by making sure our PPE is clean and in great shape. If we wear dirty gear and teach our new employees to wear dirty gear, we are not watching each other's back. This practice can be changed for the better with a proper PPE Officer Program that prioritizes the maintenance of PPE, monitoring its condition and enforcing the standards established in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1851. Safety. As we in the fire service work to educate ourselves, our primary lesson must always be to monitor our own personal safety and the safety of our crew. We learn this lesson early, and in a number of ways we take it for granted: we make sure our self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) are in working order. We test our hoses and nozzles. Each day, the fire truck is readied and all of its equipment is checked to make sure that it is in proper working order. Yet each and every morning, we take our bunker gear from its storage in the firehouse and toss it into the apparatus without a thought. The next time you do that, stop. Did you inspect it since the last call you were on? Were all the components in proper working order? Did you remember to decontaminate the blood that got on it after the motor vehicle accident you responded to on Friday night? Has it been washed since the last working structure fire you went on? When the carbon from multiple fires builds up on your gear, it will absorb more radiant heat, and dirty bunker gear is a known conductor of electricity. Keeping your gear clean and well-maintained isn't purely a matter of cosmetics and appearance; it's a matter of comfort and life safety. When you take your PPE for granted, you take your safety for granted. For that gear to protect you as it was designed by the manufacturer to do when you are caught in a flashover, all of its components must be in the proper working order and free from damage. Remember the old adage: telegraph, telephone or tell a firefighter. When a firefighter hears about something that harms us, the firefighter network starts to pulse and send out the alerting signal to all other firefighters. We jump to action. We seek the training to protect us. We start our search for information about the situation or condition that harmed one of our own. So for your own safety, start your PPE Officer Program today. It's for your own safety. Budget. I find it very amusing that George Washington is still an effective leader to this day, our fire departments operate according to the number of him we need in a fiscal year. We budget money for the purchase of new gear and to replace our sets that are held together by their last stitches. When we put together the budget proposal for new PPE, we need also to factor in the cost of setting up our own PPE Officer Program. PPE is expensive, so we should establish a program that ensures a return on our investment. Rarely do we think about the total cost of a lawsuit that resulted from not having our PPE maintained to standard due to ineffective monitoring. PPE that is improperly serviced and maintained can lead to enormous financial risk. How would you rank the importance of health, safety and the budget? I hope you answered safety first. For any test question in the fire service, the most correct answer is always the one that involves safety. Health is closely related to safety, and the two can be addressed together. As for the budget, you have to balance a lawsuit against proper PPE maintenance. It's your choice. Paul Wayne Powell, a firefighter with the College Station, TX, Fire Department is a lead instructor for the NFPA 1851, Personal Protective Equipment Officer Course and ARFF Training Programs at Emergency Services Training Institute at Texas A&M University.

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