The Evolution of Firefighter PPE
Firefighter PPE has come a long way since the first days of the volunteer firefighter stations. Most firefighters back then responded to fires in whatever they happened to be wearing at the time whether it be regular clothes or old uniforms from their time in the military. Due to the lack of protection most structures often burned to the ground because firefighters fought the fire from outside and interior operations were simply not possible. With the formation of the NFPA, National Fire Codes provided standards to protect firefighters such as “NFPA 1971 Protective Ensemble for Structural Fire Fighting.” As firefighting technology improved, strategies and tactics became more aggressive. With full head to toe PPE, firefighters can now safely respond to numerous types of emergencies and efficiently do their job.
In the early days of firefighting it would be that the only emergencies that firefighters would respond to is fires, nowadays that is not the case. In fact the majority of a Fire Department’s calls will be medical aids or medical emergencies. It is not likely that full turnout gear is needed to protect the firefighter from medical hazards and to don such PPE would be a waste of time. Standard Precautions are a set of infection control practices used to prevent transmission of diseases that can be acquired by contact with blood, body fluids, non-intact skin (including rashes) and mucous membranes. These measures are to be used when providing care to all individuals whether or not they appear to be infectious or symptomatic. Standard Precautions should always be taken such as latex gloves, EMS or protective eyewear, HEPA masks if contagious airborne diseases are present and isolation gowns if highly contagious diseases are present. Latex gloves should be worn on all medical aids whether obvious threats are present or not. Safety glasses are also required on all medical aids to prevent splashing of blood or vomitus in eyes and prevent pathogens from being coughed into your eyes. Face shields also provide total eye and face protection but is optional. High Efficiency Particulate Air or HEPA masks filter out 95% of airborne particles and are used to protect firefighters and EMS personnel from airborne diseases such as Tuberculosis, H1N1 and Meningitis. The most commonly used form of HEPA mask amongst firefighters and EMS personnel is the N95. Isolation gowns are not commonly seen in the Pre-hospital setting but more in health care facilities. But as more firefighters and EMS personnel are becoming more knowledgeable about the benefits they are becoming more popular. Isolation gowns can be described as a disposable plastic or linen gown to act as a protective barrier against highly contagious pathogens such as MRSA, C Difficile and VRE.
The oldest and most recognizable form of PPE is the turnouts or “Bunker Gear” that is worn at structure fires and rescue operations. This will include turnouts, boots, helmet and SCBA’s. Turnouts consist of insulated pants with reflective striping and suspenders connecting at the pants at eight points; insulated jacket with reflective striping that is closed with Velcro and spring hooks; insulated leather gloves and a Nomex hood. Turnouts are required to have three levels of protection such as an outer layer of flame resistant fabric that will not be destroyed by being charred or melted when exposed to 500 degrees Fahrenheit for a five minute period; a middle layer to prevent water or moisture from penetrating through to the firefighter; and a third layer to provide thermal insulation from radiant, convective and conducted heat. Some newer turnouts are so advanced and effective that the outer layer can withstand heat up to 1200 degrees Fahrenheit; the middle layer can not only prevent but releases moisture from inside the gear; an inner layer that is made up of a synthetic fire-resistant material and on top of all that, the material is...