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The Advancements in Firefighters’ Protective Equipment

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There have been many great advancements in the past 15 years that have helped improve firefighter efficiency and most importantly, firefighter’s health and safety. The fire service is constantly evolving in order to facilitate a safer working environment. Before the invention of many technological advancements, firefighters were unable to attack an interior fire due to the lack of sufficient fire protection. Without the technology to fight fires effectively, structures that could not be saved were inevitably burned down.

It is also important to note that it is mandatory to retire all protective elements, with focus on firefighter helmets, at 10 years. Gear is to be periodically replaced partly because (National Fire Protection Association) NFPA standards are continuously revised every five years and a 10-year span will represent two editions of standards. Like with all technological advancements, some firefighters didn’t like the changes that were being made. For example, when hoods were invented, many firefighters were opposed to using them in the field. Firefighters did not like the hoods because it covered their ears, hindering their ability to hear and make sense of the world around them. Before hoods were used, firefighters would also use their ears as heat indicators to tell whether it was too hot or not to stay in the structure. Protective firefighting hoods were invented in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s alongside the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).

A firefighter’s PPE is only effective when all the components are present and used properly. High-tech fabric has been shown to provide more protection and gone through more significant adaptation to become more efficient. For many years, firefighters were vulnerable wearing little to no fire protection whatsoever. Outdated protective equipment included leather trench coats with wool liners before they were later phased out for rubber clothing. In the 1970’s firefighters began to seek the help of NASA to create a fabric that could withstand intense temperature change such as that in space. The U.S. Fire Administration went on to develop Project FIRES and published its findings in May 1, 1980 to create a systematic approach toward developing better technologies and protection for structural firefighters. Standards created from this research led to the creation and adoption of a performance test called NPFA 1971 to test thermal protective performance.

When considering firefighting attire such as boots, this one garment has seen more advancement in the last 15 years than in the previous 200 years. Boots today fit and move better and are made comfortable for long period of wear while simultaneously resisting water and providing better protection from physical hazards such as tears, punctures and cuts. Helmets, for example, are items that are now considered as part of the 10-year retirement criteria along with turnout coats and pants. In the firefighting community, there is some controversy on the retiring of hoods, gloves and footwear. In the 1980’s, advanced fire-resistant materials such as Nomex and Kevlar were used in part with the turnout clothes to make a more protective outer shell for coats and pants.

Firefighters of today use PPE that combines previous years of testing and experimentation along with the advancement of technology from our modern time. Coats and pants consist of three layers not unlike the first issued NFPA standards. Material and temperature rating have improved with additional webbing, multiple pockets and removable knee pads. The fire helmet of today is still very similar to that of Henry T. Gratacap’s design from 1836. The helmets now have better suspension, a chin strap and a fire-resistant flap that helps to shield the neck and ears. An SCBA provides excellent respiratory assistance and protection weighing much less than earlier models with air supply fitted to shoulder straps and a waist belt. Air bottles can now sustain higher pressures and integrated PASS (personal alert safety system) devices automatically turn on when air bottles are opened. An audible alarm will sound if the firefighter is stationary. Escape ropes have been added to the pack harness in conjunction with handles attached to the back plate if rescue becomes necessary. It goes without saying that firefighters today are much more prepared and protected than the firefighters who founded the profession many years ago. 

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