Adding up a firefighter's gear

Ask Firefighter Jim

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Question of the Month: (December 2010)

"How much does all that gear weigh? What does 'that' do?"

"How much does all that gear weigh?" is probably the most common question asked of a firefighter along with questions about the equipment that is part of the structural firefighter's uniform called Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). Among firefighters, PPE is more commonly called turnouts or "bunker gear." The name "bunker gear" comes from the days when gear was stored directly next to one's bunk. Over the years, firefighters realized that time could be saved if pants were "turned out" over the tops of the boots so that a firefighter could step directly into the boots and pull up the pants and suspenders in one move, hence the name "turnouts."

The weight of a firefighter's PPE depends on what tools s/he may be packing with them. Just the basic PPE (helmet, pants, coat, gloves, boots and air pack) weighs 45 pounds. Adding other essential gear, such as a thermal imaging camera, radio (not pictured), flashlight and set of irons (halligan tool and axe) increases the weight to 77 pounds. Of course, this doesn't include the weight from added tools every firefighter carries in their pockets. Water soaked turnouts and a charged hose adds extra weight in a hurry.

The purpose of a firefighter's PPE is to protect them from the heat of a fire as well as allow them to breathe safely in hazardous environments. The three layers of protective clothing (No. 12) consist of fire retardant material such as Nomex or Kevlar along with the additional wear-and-tearing resistive properties added to the outer layer of the coat and pants. The second layer is water-repellent material that keeps water off the skin in case the firefighter is in an environment exceeding 212 degrees, where the water could turn to steam and burn their skin. The innermost layer is a thermal protective material to help insulate from intense heat.

Newer PPE pants generally have knee pads (No. 11) which can be replaced when worn, saving the high cost of replacing the entire set of pants. Boots (No. 10) are made of insulated rubber or leather with steel toes and shanks to protect against crushing and piercing hazards.

Reflective striping (No. 6) is found on all PPE clothing, including the firefighter's name (No. 14) and helmet that make him/her more visible at night or in smoke. A fire resistant hood (No. 2) is pulled over the head, ears and neck to create a seal around the mask (No. 5), with insulated leather gloves (No. 8) usually the last article of PPE a firefighter puts on.

The helmet traditionally was made of leather and is still used today by many firefighters. The modern helmet (No. 1) is made of heavily reinforced plastic with an eye shield and fire retardant neck and ear flap (No. 16) attached. Helmets are often color coded depending on rank. Typically, firefighters wear black or yellow, with officers wearing red and chiefs wearing white.

In addition, many firefighters store items on their helmets, such as flashlights, wedges used to keep doors open while inside buildings, and goggles (No. 15) to provide extra eye protection during extrication incidents.

The breathing system worn is called a "Self Contained Breathing Apparatus" or SCBA which provides a constant flow of positive air pressure into the mask (No. 5) which prevents any contaminated air from making its way inside. It consists of an air tank (No. 13) which holds approximately 30 minutes of air and is made of a light fiberglass composite (much lighter than older metal tanks). The SCBA system allows air tanks to be replaced easily and quickly without taking the pack off.

The SCBA is equipped with a remote gauge and a "low air" alarm which alerts the wearer when the air supply has dropped to 25 percent of capacity. Some systems may include only an auditory alarm, with newer systems providing both auditory and flashing lights and some even have a "heads up" display as well. Also attached to the breathing pack is a personal alert safety system or PASS (No. 3), which sounds louder and louder when it senses no movement for approximately 30 seconds. A firefighter at rest can move the PASS slightly to reset it and end the alarm. Firefighters that are injured or "down" can manually activate the alarm if possible, or if no movement is sensed, the alarm will sound, making it easier for fellow firefighters to come to their aid.

The thermal imaging camera (TIC) (No. 7) is an invaluable tool used for sensing heat sources, even in areas where a firefighter can't see, such as inside walls, attics, under debris, through smoke or in total darkness. Although the fire may appear to be out, sometimes "hot spots" that aren't obvious, can smolder for hours and rekindle the fire. Firefighters may also use the TIC to locate people that have been thrown from a vehicle and not easily seen due to darkness or vegetation or as part of a search and rescue operation.

Common equipment used and carried by a firefighter at a structure fire may include a "set of irons" (No. 9), which generally consist of an axe and a halligan tool. These tools help pry open car doors, force doors and windows open, chop a vent hole in a roof, break windows and locks and even tear down a wall. The set of irons alone weigh 19 pounds. Firefighters will often grab a large flashlight known as a battle lantern along with their attached rechargeable flashlight, similar to the "Big Ed" (No. 4) pictured. Not pictured but carried by every firefighter, especially when going into a structure fire, is a portable radio to keep in constant contact with their incident commander.

Though heavy in weight and expensive in cost, PPE allows firefighters to work in the harshest of conditions and hazards, in the safest manner possible. Personal protection equipment, through continued improvements and their proper use, has saved many, many lives, including both firefighters and the citizens they help protect.

Stay safe out there!

Jim Lyon is the public education specialist/information officer with Kootenai County Fire and Rescue (KCFR). If you have a question about emergency services in your area, please submit your question to "Ask Firefighter Jim" at askffjim@kootenaifire.com. Visit our Web page at www.kootenaifire.com for additional information and to read archives of previously answered questions under the link, "Prevention."

Did you know...

• The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) sets many safety standards for firefighter PPE, with the requirement for heat/fire resistant clothing being able to withstand 5-minutes in an oven set at 500 degrees, Fahrenheit without igniting, melting, dripping or separating.

• The cost of equipping a firefighter with PPE (helmet, neck/ear hood, gloves, coat, pants, boots, radio and SCBA with mask) as pictured costs approximately $12,100. Adding a flashlight, set of irons and thermal imaging camera sets the price over $23,000.

n The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) sets many safety standards for firefighter PPE, with the requirement for heat/fire resistant clothing being able to withstand 5-minutes in an oven set at 500 degrees, Fahrenheit without igniting, melting, dripping or separating.

• The cost of equipping a firefighter with PPE (helmet, neck/ear hood, gloves, coat, pants, boots, radio and SCBA with mask) as pictured costs approximately $12,100. Adding a flashlight, set of irons and thermal imaging camera sets the price over $23,000.

• The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) sets many safety standards for firefighter PPE, with the requirement for heat/fire resistant clothing being able to withstand 5-minutes in an oven set at 500 degrees, Fahrenheit without igniting, melting, dripping or separating.

• The cost of equipping a firefighter with PPE (helmet, neck/ear hood, gloves, coat, pants, boots, radio and SCBA with mask) as pictured costs approximately $12,100. Adding a flashlight, set of irons and thermal imaging camera sets the price over $23,000.

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