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PPE/PPC – the Last Line of Defence – Part 1

One of the most important safety tools that a firefighter brings to an emergency incident is their senses. In their raw state, the well trained and heightened senses of; sight, smell, feel, hearing and taste, provide the human body with a marvellous interconnected protective mechanism, which allows us to be both pre-warned of hazards and potential risks, as well as the ability to retreat from dangerous situations.

However to allow firefighters to actually do their task or complete their mission safely, they need to have a choice of all the PPE protective benefits that today’s technology can offer. It is important to achieve a safe balance between all 3 elements of protection, comfort and awareness.

There had been much discussion and debate about the level of protection offered by PPC/PPE while maximising comfort or Metabolic Heat Release. Can we achieve the balance between protection and metabolic heat release? Todays technology certainly provides the balance for good moisture management therefore metabolic heat release while maintaining thermal protection. What does your Structural Firefighting Ensemble protect you against and why and how is the subject of an upcoming article and is an exciting step into the marriage of science, technology and practical Firefighting.

For some countries including the alpine regions of Australia during winter, this also includes hypothermic stability for the body.

Quite some time ago, there was a limited debate about Firefighting PPC and exposing some parts of the human anatomy so as to directly feel when it was getting hot. Unfortunately far too often this escalation in heat exposure is sudden and severe. Quite some time ago when fire hoods were introduced, some of the traditional thought was that there was benefit in exposing ones ears to better feel the heat of the fire as you advanced towards it. During that period many of the burn injuries were at the interface areas of the PPC, where different elements of the PPC met (or worse -didn’t meet), often around the wrist, neck and ears. I recall advising those who used to advocate exposing the ears to heat and even flame, that the ears were not designed to be “one off thermal detectors” and that you may need them during retirement.

Fortunately the wider use of thermal imaging cameras (TIC’s) and Intelligent Clothing technology like the integrated Thermal Sensor Technology (TST) built directly into the fabric and improved understanding of the science of fire behaviour and more comprehensive live fire training, has greatly improved the firefighters situational awareness. This technology and training also allows the firefighter to gain a better understanding of their own physiology and how it performs in relation to their particular PPC in various firefighting environments. However, until more recent times, this very important 3rd element of awareness has been given less consideration in the overall balanced equation of PPC design and selection.

Note: (The broader subject of Emergency Incident Situational Awareness encompasses many issues of the incident such as good intelligence gathering, clear/concise and dynamic Incident Action Plan (IAP) which is well communicated, a safe span of control and a the application of a “Risk verses Gain” philosophy to name just a few, and is a paper all on its own).

The requirements of protection for firefighters often has some impact on one or more of the body’s senses. Sometimes the PPE has a positive or improved affect on the performance of your senses. One good example of this is the ability to monitor the “heads up display” in a B/A mask or simply see in the dark with a torch or in smoke with a TIC and all “hands free” if you choose.

However, PPE can often reduce or limit some of the functionality of the senses. Foam or water on the helmet visor or B/A mask may limit ones vision. Using powered cutting equipment in conjunction with ear/hearing protection will reduce a firefighters ability to hear.

Fortunately there are often alternate work practices which successfully cater for many of these scenarios. Knowing these “work arounds” or alternate work methods, and being well trained in them, often comes with good practical training, time and experience in the job and contributes to a better and safer use of our PPE/PPC.

Additionally thick traditional structural firefighting gloves may decrease dexterity and feel. It is for this reason that I have researched and sought a number of improved glove dexterity test methods and regimes for inclusion into the Australian and ISO Standards.

In conjunction with this a number of advancements have been made in the area of thinner moisture barriers, better sized moisture barrier size templates as well as a more comprehensive choice of lighter more flexible outer shell materials for firefighting gloves.

However some of the problem with the issue of dexterity when working with a gloved hand is in the design of the ancillary equipment which it has to interact with. Radios that were not waterproof and had small non-positive buttons, poor visual read-outs certainly contributed to the problem. However with positive consultation with many of the manufacturers of communication equipment, there has been significant gains over the past ten years to respond to our industry’s requirements of hot, wet and often robust needs with appropriate dexterity and feel.

In conjunction with this, those standard makers and purchasers who have a thorough working knowledge and understanding of the potential exposures which firefighters regularly encounter and how that is inherently linked to the performance criteria of our PPC/PPE, will be better placed to enhance the continuing balance between Protection, Comfort and Awareness.

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International Standards Organisation (ISO) and Standards Australia representative for firefighting PPE.