“What’s all that stuff weigh?” – a popular question for Haddam firefighters, after “What does that do?” and “Why are your fire trucks yellow?”
Depending on what a firefighter is carrying, all that extra gear can weigh more than 70 pounds.
While most firefighters weigh “none of your business,” Mike Sapia is a lean 150 pounds. Now imagine the Haddam firefighter packing 70 extra pounds on a hot summer day. Even a fit guy like Mike would pour sweat and suck down air, which is another incentive for firefighters to eat healthy and exercise regularly. Inside a structure fire, one rotation (breathing down most of an air bottle) has been compared to running two miles without a warm-up or taking any breaks. If you can’t do that, overexertion, or worse, is a serious risk.
A structural firefighter’s uniform is called Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), also called “bunker gear” or “turnout gear.” “Bunker” comes from the days when gear was stored next to a person’s bunk; “turnout” refers to the time-saving practice of “turning out” the pants over the top of the boots. This allows a firefighter to step directly into the boots and pull the pants and suspenders up in one move.
The total weight of a firefighter’s PPE depends on the tools needed for the job, but basic PPE (helmet, hood, pants, coat, gloves, boots and air pack) weighs about 45 pounds. Add a thermal imaging camera, radio, box light and set of irons (Halligan bar and axe) and you’re up to about 75 pounds.
While it’s unlikely that a firefighter will bring every tool to advance a hose line or perform a search-and-rescue, there’s a lot to carry. Some other things to consider: the weight of tools in pockets, water-soaked turnouts, a charged hose and encountering a person who needs help being evacuated. The weight of that victim requires considerable effort to move, on top of the weight of the PPE. Moving a downed firefighter places even more stress on rescuers.
Why so bulky? PPE is designed to protect from the heat of a fire while allowing firefighters to breathe safely in an IDLH (Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health) environment.
“Safety is our number one concern, so we wear clothing and gear designed to protect us from heat, flames and smoke,” said Haddam Fire Chief Gary Klare.
A typical bunker coat consists of three layers. The outer layer is a fire-retardant material like Nomex or Kevlar with additional wear-and-tear resistive properties. The second layer is water-repellent material to keep water off the skin in case the firefighter enters an environment exceeding 212 degrees. At that temperature, water can turn to steam and cause serious burns. The innermost layer is a thermal protective material to insulate from intense heat.
Reflective striping appears on all PPE bunker coats, pants and helmets to make firefighters more visible at night and in thick smoke. A fire-resistant hood pulls over the head, ear and neck to create a seal around the mask. Insulated leather gloves are usually the last piece of PPE to go on.
Leather helmets are still used, but most modern helmets are plastic with an attached, fire-retardant neck and ear flap. Firefighters also store items on their helmets like flashlights, wedges to chock doors open and goggles for extra eye protection during vehicle extrications.
Boots are made of insulated rubber or leather with steel toes and shanks to protect against crushing and piercing hazards. A Self Contained Breathing Apparatus, (SCBA), provides a constant flow of positive air pressure into the mask. This prevents any contaminated air from making its way inside. There are several brands of SCBA on the market, including MSA, Scott, Interpiro and Draeger. Haddam switched to Draeger after extensive research and testing.
A Draeger air cylinder holds about 30 minutes of air (4,500 psi), though during a live fire, 15 minutes is more realistic. The cylinder is made of a light fiberglass composite, and can replaced quickly without taking the pack off.
New gear is equipped with Gemtor loops and harnesses that allow trained firefighters to lock into ladders or other fixed objects when working high off the ground. They’re also helpful when removing a downed firefighter, but add about 5 pounds to the weight of the PPE.
To maintain the gear, Station No. 1 has a commercial washing machine. National Fire Protection Association guidelines call for washing all contaminants off of PPE immediately after exposure to carcinogens in a structure fire or any other hazardous materials. Many departments provide each member with two sets of gear so that one is always available during cleaning/drying cycles. Members of Haddam Fire are issued one set of PPE. A gear drier is being requested in this year’s budget to get firefighters back into service more quickly, as wet, freshly washed gear is unavailable for use.
A full set of turnout gear runs about $3,000, not counting the SCBA which is about $6,000. Turnout gear is always a large item in the Fire Company’s budget. The NFPA recommends that all gear is replaced no longer than 10 years after it’s put into service, or sooner if rips, tears, or heat-related wear are found. HVFC Quartermaster Jason Lonergan sends gear out to a certified repair facility to extend the PPE’s life whenever possible, but with intense training, not all gear makes it the full 10 years.
An aggressive replacement plan keeps Haddam firefighters in the best PPE for the worst conditions. Though heavy and expensive, PPE allows firefighters to do hazardous work in the safest way possible.
As for why are our fire trucks are yellow, I’m not exactly sure. I know that many departments changed colors because of an optometrist and volunteer firefighter named Stephen Solomon. In the 1960s, Solomon found that the color lime-yellow (or “safety yellow” like some apparatus in Middletown) and “school bus” yellow (Haddam’s color) are more visible to the eye than red, therefore safer. But the U.S. Fire Service is steeped in history and many departments – including the FDNY – started switching to yellow only to paint them back. They didn’t see a safety advantage and, well, fire trucks are traditionally red.
I guess in Haddam, we just dare to be different.
For more information on the activities of the Haddam Volunteer Fire Co. and ways you can get involved, visit our website www.HaddamFire.com, or look for us on Facebook.