Wildland firefighting: Wear the right gear for the right call 


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From wildland fires to medical emergencies to rescue missions, Todd Herring, VP Product Innovation and Strategy at Fire-Dex discusses alternative PPE for firefighters

It is important to consider that structural firefighting PPE is designed specifically to protect individuals from the thermal hazards of interior structural firefighting. Donning structural gear on non-structural fire emergencies can cause unnecessary stress on the body and may expose firefighters to contaminants still clinging to their bunker gear.

With many departments now experiencing a high volume of wildland and non-fire calls, wearing lightweight, alternative PPE can help protect crew members from physical overexertion and exposure to carcinogens. At the same time, the life of valuable turnout gear is extended when structural equipment is used only when necessary. That is why today more fire departments are choosing lighter, more breathable and comfortable PPE for wildland fire and non-fire calls where structural gear is not required. 

The latest National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) data shows that in the US, fire calls dropped by 53% between 1980 (nearly 3 million calls) and 2020 (1.3 million calls), while Emergency medical service calls spiked by 371% (from five million to over 23 million calls). In 2020 alone, fire departments received over seven million calls involving hazardous materials or conditions. This trend points to changing community needs and an evolving role for fire services in protecting people from all types of hazards. In turn, firefighters need the right gear to help ensure a safe and appropriate response.

What to wear

There are many examples where structural firefighting PPE may not be needed, where single-layer alternative PPE garments can offer improved mobility, breathability and comfort while protecting the wearer from thermal, physical and unique hazards.

Alternative PPE is often the preferred choice for responding to emergencies including: brush or wildfires, search and rescue, motor vehicle accidents, extrication, confined spaces, high or low angle rescue, fire investigation, flooding, water leaks, overhaul (with proper respiratory protection), calls for civilian assist (lifting, moving, lockout, etc.) electrical emergencies and goodwill calls.

In wildland firefighting the added weight of turnout gear can become a hindrance when engaging in wildland firefighting. A lighter-weight, NFPA 1977 certified protective garment can meet the demands of this dangerous job. 

For EMS calls, choosing to forgo turnout gear when entering a patient’s home can protect civilians against the spread of contaminants while also reducing heat stress and improving mobility (and response times) for crew members.

In search and rescue situations where emergency responders must traverse large expanses of difficult terrain or jump into action at a moment’s notice, gear that moves more freely with the body’s natural movement makes it easier to perform your best when it is needed most.

NFPA-approved gear

Alternative PPE can weigh up to 80% less than structural firefighting gear while offering three to four times the breathability based on Total Heat Loss (THL) testing. Like structural gear, alternative PPE must meet NFPA standards for thermal, flame, radiant heat and flash fire protection; however, the requirements to protect personnel are lower by comparison enabling manufacturers to use lighter more breathable fabrics in the construction of alternative garments.

Alternative PPE garments can also be specialised for responding to different wildland and non-fire scenarios, allowing departments to dial in on the features that best suit their needs. Selection differs by manufacturer but can include options such as: Wildland gear certified to NFPA 1977 (wildland firefighting) for serious protection during outdoor fire emergencies, with options for secure tool/GPS placement that is critical in unpredictable environments. Fire-Dex uses 100% INDURA cotton in many of its wildland outer shells to give lightweight, economical protection and are guaranteed flame resistant for the life of the garment.

EMS gear certified to NFPA 1999 (emergency medical operations) is waterproof and bloodborne pathogen-resistant to protect from line-of-duty hazards. TECGEN51 fabric is a patented flame-resistant outer shell material available only from Fire-Dex that is built from a combination of high-density TECGEN fibres and para-aramids to offer superior thermal protective performance (TPP), radiant protective performance (RPP) and THL performance.

TECGEN51 fatigues can reduce physical stress by requiring less cardiovascular effort than structural firefighting gear and has the highest total breathability of any NFPA 1977 or 1951 certified materials available. This garment offers optimal strength, thermal protection, breathability and versatility for a variety of wildland and non-fire-related calls.

Urban Search & Rescue (USAR) apparel certified to NFPA 1951 (technical rescue) and NFPA 1999 is designed for the rugged challenges of technical rescue and emergency medicine. Fire-Dex builds USAR moisture barrier solutions from CROSSTECH S/R fabric that is light and comfortable and protects against blood, body fluids and common chemicals. Dual-certified NFPA 1951 and NFPA 1977 gear that offers protection for a range of responses.

More colour options

Alternative PPE also comes in many colours to suit different needs. Traditionally orange, wildfire gear created problems when aircraft pilots would mistake workers for smoldering hot spots, actually dousing crews with flame retardant in some cases. Today, bright yellow is the go-to choice for wildfire gear having been shown to stand out better against most backgrounds, particularly in heavily forested areas.

In other cases such as a widespread search-and-rescue mission confusion can be avoided when emergency responders and tactical crews wear differently coloured PPE that clearly identifies their on-site role and responsibility.

What to wear underneath

For most non-fire-related calls, approved station wear is still the appropriate choice. When fighting wildfires, however, Fire-Dex recommends wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt, underwear and socks—all 100% cotton or a 100% flame-resistant blend—as synthetic materials (e.g., nylon, rayon and polyester often used in tight-fitting athletic apparel) can melt to the skin when exposed to extreme heat – think shrink-wrapping wherein the wearer’s every movement becomes restricted and can result in burns.

Path to purchase

Continuing advancements in fabric and materials technology allow manufacturers like Fire-Dex to develop innovative nonstructural PPE garments that meet the specific needs of emergency responders. From pants and jackets to coveralls for unpredictable environments, there is ongoing investment in lighter, more breathable and comfortable garments suited for the toughest wildland and non-fire calls.

To start, fire departments should explore purchase programs that bundle structural and nonstructural garments into one cost-effective package. Some manufacturers extend generous discounts to customers purchasing PPE for their entire department, so the savings can be quite significant when ordering new gear.

Departments may also find support from manufacturers who streamline the PPE buying process through ready-to-use procurement contracts. This can save time and administrative costs while ensuring the department’s meaningful participation. Departments can typically choose from multiple contract providers that work closely with the manufacturer to help ensure a smooth process. The US Fire Administration provides multiple options that can help secure funds for first responders to receive the equipment needed to protect and serve their communities.

A better alternative

As communities continue to evolve, many fire departments are experiencing a high volume of non-structural fire calls. To meet this demand, manufacturers have begun offering alternative PPE garments to mitigate the risks of developing heat stress and the spread of carcinogens.

Wearing this lighter gear as an alternative to turnouts on calls that do not require the same amount of thermal protection like motor vehicle accidents, emergency medical calls, and confined space rescue, can help the firefighter maintain their body’s core temperature and prevent them from becoming unnecessarily overheated. Alternative PPE also provides versatile protection during wildland and medical emergencies while making emergency personnel easily identifiable to the public.

Few professions are as unpredictable as firefighting―the right alternative garment can protect firefighters while helping them perform their best on every type of call.

This article was originally published in the September edition of IFSJ. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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