Firefighters have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Walking into a house fire that could reach 1000 degrees in under a minute (that’s not a typo) or a chemical fire that may reach double or triple that temperature in seconds, while battling smoke inhalation as well, means a firefighter’s life depends on being supplied with the best equipment that money can buy. Without the proper gear, firefighters can’t stay inside a burning structure long enough to rescue victims or fight the fire successfully.
So, what is the right gear that keeps them safe and still allows them to do their jobs?
Tim Fitts, a veteran firefighter in North Carolina, and Coordinator of certification classes for firefighters and rescue squads at Guilford Technical Community College, demonstrated his gear on a 95 degree day in September. Fire isn’t selective about the weather, so it’s a good thing for us that firefighters train and work under all kinds of conditions.
The firefighter uniform is generally called ‘turnout gear’ by firefighters because they turn it inside out when not in use, so that they can step into it quickly and pull it on/up when the fire bell/siren sounds. Firefighters need to get completely dressed in about a minute, so any safe system that will speed up the process is used. Some guys pull on the boots and pants, grab the rest of the gear and finish getting dressed in the truck as it pulls out of the fire station.
The official name for the gear is Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
Parts of the firefighter uniform:
While on the job at a fire or rescue operation that might result in a fire, most firefighters will wear these pieces of clothing:
These three hoods are made of different fabrics: Kevlar blend, PBI/Kevlar, and Nomex.
Firefighters put a hood on before the jacket, so that it sits properly on the shoulders. They tend to wear two hoods to protect against a flashover, giving their heads the extra defense needed in the intense heat. If a flashover occurs, the firefighter will have about two seconds to get out of the building. If the hoods are not providing enough coverage, it will feel like 1000 bees stinging the ears at one time – it’s too hot to stand. It’s time to get out.
The helmets are made of thick, heat resistant plastic and often include Kevlar or Nomex flaps for the ears.
Firefighters are taught to fight fires on their knees (not while crawling) so the extra padding helps cushion the wear and tear on the knees.
In addition, the firefighters put on:
The PASS device (Personal Alert Safety System) is a personal safety device used by firefighters entering a hazardous environment – a burning building. When the firefighter does not move for 30 seconds, it makes a loud, shrill, really annoying sound, letting others in the area know that something is wrong.
The mask on the left is a newer model, the one on the right? Older. There has been an upgrade in technology for the plastic in the mask, developed because at high temperatures, the old plastic would fail (melt). It was the weakest part of the uniform. The new version will not fail as quickly.
Note that even the air tank is protected with a fire retardant fabric.
The idea is to be protected from the fire and to be able to breathe safely while he/she works. The positive pressure mask on the SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) gear keeps the toxic air out as much as possible by allowing the tank air to flow continuously, even if the firefighter is not inhaling. By the way, the tanks are full of compressed air, not oxygen.
Most of the clothes have reflective tape so that the firefighter can be seen more easily through the smoke and low light/darkness. Some departments are large enough that they use color-coded reflective tape in order to tell the full-time firefighters and the volunteers apart.
The uniforms are sized to the individual firefighters, so that when they bend over, there is at least a two-inch overlap with the fabric pieces, and no skin is exposed to the crippling, blistering heat.
Hip boots of years ago, are now old school because of the area of the body they left unprotected from heat. Now the boots have steel toes and shanks and are calf high or knee high in length.
When fully dressed, the firefighter is wearing about 70 pounds of equipment. Add more weight for the tools they have to carry – picks, axes, etc – needed to fight the fire.
After ten years, all turnout gear must be thrown away. It wears out because of repeated exposure to the intense heat and toxic elements. Many large, active fire departments dispose of the clothing after only five years, because of their more frequent use and improvements in technology.
Firefighting gear is not fireproof. It is fire retardant.
Some of the clothing has 3 layers, each layer performing a different function. People can only tolerate temperatures to 135 degrees, so the specialized fabrics extend the time available to do the job. Firefighters get very uncomfortable at 250 degrees, and the time limit for the firefighter at that point is about 30 seconds to reach someone and get out. One of the firefighters at Command keeps track of the men/women – where they are in the structure and how long they’ve been working the fire.
Nomex degrades at 400 degrees, so needs to be used in addition to other fabrics if fighting a structural fire. It tends to split when the wearer is running. When combined with Kevlar, it becomes more flexible and the fabric breathes a bit better.
PBI degrades at 1100 degrees, allowing a much better chance for the firefighter to stay safe while fighting a house blaze. It stays intact in the extreme temperatures and allows the firefighter extra time to get to a victim and then get out.
Gortex helps shed water.
Heat goes through each layer a bit at a time. Each layer is a necessary barrier, in its place to protect the firefighter and keep his body from getting hotter than is safe.
After fires, all of the clothing needs to be taken apart and washed, because everything in a fire is carcinogenic. Hmm…that means that the entire time a firefighter is working the fire, his equipment has to protect him from the flames and the smoke, as well as anything else thrown into the air, both in the active fire and in the area outside the building.
Some fire Captains insist that the clothing be stored away from the sleeping area at the station, because it may still contain toxins even after being washed. If you get a chance to visit a Fire Station, you might be able to tell where the gear is kept, before you ever reach the room. The smoky odor is sharp and unforgettable.
Cost of Basic Turnout Gear (approximate)
Tim Fitts told us about the testing going on at NC State’s College of Textiles, in the search for better, more effective, fire retardant fabrics.
To see a demonstration of how a firefighter’s uniform reacts to fire, click here for NC State’s PyroMan video:
For a demonstration of how quickly heat from a flame penetrates protective layers before reaching the skin, click here for NC State’s PyroMan animation:
Every second counts when rescuing you or your pets in a fire. We know that a simple house fire can fully engulf an 8’x10’ room in 90 seconds. That’s not a typo. If the firefighters are on the scene before that happens to the entire house, they need as much lead time as possible in order to keep a rescue operation from becoming a recovery operation. That’s when the best turnout gear on the market is worth every dime.
*Photos by Patti Phillips, taken at Guilford Technical Community College, NC, during The 2014 Writers’ Police Academy.
Thanks to Tim Fitts for generously sharing his knowledge and expertise. As of this writing, in 2014, Tim, a veteran firefighter and Fire Occupational Extension Coordinator at GTCC, was in charge of all Con Ed certification and non-certification classes in Fire and Rescue subjects to members of NC fire departments and rescue squads. Any errors in fact are mine, not his.
If you’re curious about what it takes to qualify for Firefighter Training, read “How do you become a firefighter?”
I have several pals around the country who are firefighters. Some put out wildfires, some work in rural areas, others in big cities. A couple of them helped out during and after September 11th. Firefighters have a dangerous job and a whole lot of guts. No doubt about it. They save lives, they help people, they serve the community in countless ways. Yet, many civilians assume that the job is just about putting out the flames. In most towns, there is much more to it. Their duties can include:
And, after they do all that, firefighters are usually responsible for the cleanup and checking the incident site afterward.
One of the first ways children meet firefighters is in school. Each year in October (National Fire Prevention Month in the USA) firefighters educate the community by visiting schools and public venues, demonstrating how to avoid getting hurt during a fire. “Stop, Drop & Roll” is taught everywhere, so that children will know what to do if they smell smoke in their own homes. In communities where wildfires are an unfortunate fact of life, wildfire preparedness is taught, with a focus on how to protect the house year-round and what to do when it’s time to evacuate.
Sound like a career you’d like to have? Read on to discover the job requirements. It’s a competitive field and not for everyone, but it is highly rewarding for the guys and gals who qualify.
You must be 18 and have a High School diploma. Beyond that?
Most potential firefighters will then have to undergo five areas of testing in order to determine readiness for training:
Testing for Firefighter Qualification:
Written Exam – 150 to 200 multiple choice questions including reading comprehension, math, judgment, listening comprehension, oral & written communication, etc.
Physical Agility – the various parts of this test simulate situations a firefighter would encounter on the job and depending on the town/city, all must be completed in under ten minutes (in some cases as little as seven minutes)
This video from Cuyahoga Community College demonstrates some of the challenges to be met:
If the applicant fails the physical part of the test, he/she is typically allowed to sign up for a later attempt, usually after several months.
Other sections of the test battery include:
Medical Exam – thorough checkup, plus drug testing
Psychological Exam – are you psychologically suited for the job – are you afraid of dark, tight spaces? Do you work well in teams? Can you take orders? Why do you want to work in such a dangerous field?
Oral Interview (pass/fail section of testing)
Possible questions might include: Why do you want to be a firefighter? What are your strengths/weaknesses? What is the job? Are you qualified? Why should we hire you?
After passing all five areas, the applicant will be permitted to apply to a fire academy and/or fire department for the training program.
Some towns are set up to allow for on-the-job training after the testing is complete. The applicants become candidates at the firehouse and complete their training with the firefighters they will be working with, but most towns require attendance at a formal program before this step.
Additional information at www.fireprep.com
Think you’d like to know more? Call for an appointment at your local firehouse to drop in and introduce yourself. Chances are, if the guys have the time, they’ll chew your ear off with stories of calls they’ve gone out on. The job is not like what you see on “Chicago Fire.” Fun show, but not realistic. Ask a pro.
*Photos by Patti Phillips
My grandfather’s house was lost to a fire.
Ownership of the house and all the acreage had passed outside the family many years before, but I still liked to pass by when we were in town. Seeing it always brought back memories of rocking on the front porch and playing under the pines. It had been a place to spend the summers of my youth, on a large working farm hundreds of miles from the honking horns of the city.
My grandfather built the house with his own hands. He was a pretty good carpenter and the place was solid. Remarkably, he didn’t pay cash for any of the materials. He bartered for everything at a time when money was scarce and that was possible. Watermelons for nails, chickens for paint, smoked pork for the milled lumber. An amazing achievement to be able to say that you built your own two-story house.
And, now it’s gone. Up until a few weeks ago, some of the walls could be seen from the road, but the owners finally decided to tear the building down. I took these shots a few days after the fire, once the Fire Chief had been and gone.
I called and asked about the cause of the fire, but since I had no ownership, nor did any of the family anymore, I was told that it really wasn’t any of my business. True. But, it did seem suspicious to my ever-questioning mind.
A family friend (who traveled that road on a daily basis) told me that she saw the renters moving out on the Thursday before the Saturday fire. The tenants had not been evicted, so were they in on it? I knew that a portion of the larger property (including the house) was up for sale and there had not been any offers. I knew that the entire road had been under development for some time and that most of the property owners on that road were trying to cash in on the mini-boom. The timing was odd. Or, was it just a sad coincidence? Big red flags to a detective’s way of thinking.
I wanted to blame somebody for the loss of a childhood landmark, but the newspaper article announcing the fire stated that no arson was suspected.
I accepted the verdict as I walked around the property and took my photos, but what was the Chief (or the arson investigator) looking for when he made his decision?
Arson investigators get called in whenever insurance fraud is suspected, threats have been made to the people inside the house, or lives are actually lost. They look for the fire’s point of origin and then search for clues to see if explosives or flammable liquids have been used. If evidence of accelerants is found, then the fire is ruled to be arson. The case is generally handed over to the cops, who then search for the culprit(s) involved.
Arson investigators take photos like these, but lots more of them, because they are also recording (with photos) the damage to the interior and the hot spots inside (where the fire reached the greatest intensity).
They will use all the photos if the case ever gets to court, to help explain to the jury where the fire started, where it traveled, and the extent of the damage.
Arson investigators often work with insurance investigators to discover the cause of the fire. Even if the fire is found not to be arson, the fire department needs to come up with a cause, and the investigators can help if the source is not clear right away.
Even accidental fires can cause a tremendous amount of damage, with a fire doubling its size and intensity in a house every minute, fueled by cabinets, curtains, couch fabric, and carpeting. It doesn’t take long to lose everything you own.
The owner has been compensated for his loss, and now the FOR SALE sign stands in an empty field. I still have my memories, but I sure wish the house was still standing, home to another generation of children rocking on the front porch.