Improving the Health & Safety of all Emergency Responders

The right tool for the job: Turnout gear

By: Anthony La Manna

As firefighters, we all know the routine that when the alarm comes in, career or volunteer, we don our protective gear before we begin our response to the alarm. Helmet, personal protective equipment (PPE)/bunker gear, bunker boots, hood, SCBA, all on and ready to go to the fire. The question is, how are we protecting ourselves when it’s not a fire? Are we responding in our PPE to water rescues or pump outs? How about medical calls or technical rescue calls? Are we donning our turnout gear for those calls also?

Data suggests that we shouldn’t. 90% percent of today’s calls are non-fire related, and along with the fact that almost 60% of all on duty deaths are related to over exertion, could it be that wearing traditional turnout gear is just putting an unneeded strain on our cardiac systems?

As firefighters we are creatures of habit. That’s how we train and how we learn to react.  While this works for our fire responses, it does not work for our other responses. With many departments both career and volunteer taking the all hazard approach to responses, we find ourselves at many non-fire related emergencies responding in our cumbersome, heavy and hot PPE/bunker gear. While there have been great developments in PPE to make it lighter and cooler, the fact is, it creates greater weight, temperature, and stress on our bodies. When the alarm sounds, our endorphins start flowing and eventually they balance out and that’s when fatigue sets in.

We should look beyond the PPE/bunker gear when responding to these non-fire related calls so that we can be prepared to handle them better, and for our own safety. The perfect example of this is medical calls. It’s been common (especially on late night calls) to show up in our PPE risking exposing patients to toxins and debris from our last fire. The transport crew shows up in a regular uniform dressed for the job so to speak. Even back when Johnny and Roy took their first call together, they didn’t wear their turnout’s pants to every medical or rescue calls. Their station uniform was perfect for the job and gave them the necessary protection for the type of hazards involved.

OSHA 1910.132(c) states personal protective equipment shall be of safe design and construction for the work to be performed. That means fire resistant clothing should not be required for a 3 A.M. medical alarm. Station wear with gloves and eye protection does just fine. This also applies for other types of responses. I still see departments responding to water emergency calls with turnout coats on with flotation devices not worn correctly over them. All that turnout coats does is become a weight for your sinking body.

Many will say that this is great but as volunteers we do not wear station wear so this cannot apply to us. I say yes it can. As volunteers, we need to be prepared at all times for an incident to happen. Volunteers do not have the luxury of being in station wear like career firefighters do. They can be home cutting the grass in shorts and a t shirt when the whistle blows. This is why this writer believes in the use of jump suits for these types of calls for volunteers. Many moons ago when this author was just starting out as a volunteer, we had jump suits for calls when we were not on duty and in uniform. These were great, you looked professional, you had protection and you were not weighed down by having to wear the PPE/ bunker gear.

Jump suits have a place in career departments also in the areas of rescue and wildland firefighting. When responding to these types of incidents, traditional turnout gear is not the best option, but neither is station wear. Jumpsuits or light weight turnout gear (brush fire suits) are the best options. They provide light weight and flexibility but gives the protection level that we need as responders. This will reduce fatigue on long duration incidents and enable the firefighter to recover quicker. Even some motor vehicle accidents can be handled in this type of protections. Directing traffic with a jump suit and a DOT regulated reflective vest is adequate PPE for the incident. Rescue jump suits offer protection for the extrication team as well. This will also increase mobility and lessen exhaustion when working in extreme heat and with heavy extraction tools. This is commonly seen on the racing circuit with their track crews when they respond to crashes.

As we can see, having the proper tool for the job includes our PPE. We need to leave our comfort zone of turnout gear for every call and explore light weight and more flexible alternatives that can help us safely do our job while reducing fatigue and improving firefighter health and safety. The key is examining our SOP/GOG’s and making sure they align with our resources, tools, needs, and practices.

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Anthony La Manna is a 25 year veteran of the Fire-EMS field in both career and volunteer departments. He is a nationally certified firefighter and OSHA instructor. He has served as a line officer in both career and volunteer departments including the rank of Chief of Department. He has a graduate degree from Capella University in Emergency Management and a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Maryland.