When discussing personal protective clothing, the operative word is “protective.” The dictionary says protect means to cover or shield from exposure, injury or destruction. Unfortunately, not all the things that want to injure or destroy us are outside the PPE.
Sometimes the danger is right inside the gear with us.Back when I started in this business PPE consisted of a bunker coat and pants made from canvas, rubber boots and a plastic helmet that cost about $7. If you lived in the frigid north and fought fire in the winter, you might have a pair of Red Ball gloves. They were bright orange and great for keeping your hands warm. However, get caught in a flash fire and these shiny mittens melted away, searing your pinkies but good.
As protection, it left a lot to be desired. Then came Nomex?, a revolutionary, heat- and flameresistant fiber that when used in protective fabrics, garments, insulation and other highperformance applications helps provide protection to millions of people and processes worldwide. Nomex was first used by the military in 1965, when the U.S. Navy employed flight coveralls made from Nomex brand fiber. Racing apparel made from Nomex plays a pivotal role in providing the valuable seconds racing professionals need to escape and survive flash fires that result from both on-track collisions and pit accidents.
NASA discovered the benefits of Nomex the hard way. Apollo 1 is a landmark space mission that never left the ground. On January 27, 1967, the command module was destroyed by fire during a test and training exercise at Cape Kennedy. The crew aboard – Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee – died in the accident. Their deaths were attributed to a wide range of lethal design flaws in the spacecraft, ranging from its highly pressurized 100 percent oxygen atmosphere to the lack of protection afforded by the crew’s nylon flight suits.
The subsequent research into better fire protection for astronauts spilled over into the fire service. Two guys with the Houston Fire Department, John King and Jim Bland, approached NASA about developing some cutting edge PPE for firefighters. NASA handled the high tech research and firefighters took care of the low tech testing. That testing consisted of fitting together a test stand made from pipe, draping a fire coat over it and lighting a fire to see how Nomex? compared to the standard cotton coat.
There is no denying that PPE today is vastly superior to what was available in the pre-Nomex and pre-PBI world. And, yet, like Apollo 1, modern fire gear has its own set of design flaws that can turn lethal under the right conditions. As I have said many times and will continue to say ad infinitum, firefighters are protecting themselves to death. Every time a firefighter gets caught in a flash fire, we go back to the drawing board and make the bunker gear thicker, heavier and able to insulate against greater heat.
Unfortunately, insulation cuts both ways. The heat that the bunker gear seals out is also sealed in. In humid, subtropical South Texas the average summer temperature is in the high nineties. Yet, as a young firefighter, I don’t remember responders falling out due to the heat as often as it happens today. Those old canvas fire coats had one big advantage over the modern equivalent – it could breath. I remember routinely going through two and three air bottles at a single fire. Today, a responder working under the same conditions is lucky if he can fight fire for 20 minutes straight.
I can hear the chorus now — “Hey, David, quit living in the past.” True, industrial firefighters rarely get burned wearing modern PPE. But where we do see problems is in stress-related hazards such as heat exhaustion and heart attacks. The bottom line is that while we protect against the heat of the fire we are finding other ways to risk injury. Surely, there is room for compromise in the design of PPE. The sole purpose of PPE should not be to keep firefighters from getting burned. Firefighters do not need to be routinely placed in situations that call for them to walk through fire unscathed. Pushing the bunker gear to its tolerance limits gives responders a false sense of security. A firefighter might never realize the true extent of the danger until the bunker gear fails. Then it’s too late.
Endurance should be measured in how long you are able to deal with the emergency, not how long you are able to wear the PPE. Trading a few degrees of fire protection to extend the time a responder is able to function effectively is not unreasonable.