Wearing the right gear is an important part of a firefighter’s job because it makes the difference between whether they can rescue people or not. The official name for firefighting gear is Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which consists of fire retardant clothing, gloves, boots, helmet, breathing apparatus and a Personal Alert Safety System. (PASS) The paraphanalia is commonly referred to as turnout or bunker gear. But there was a time when firefighters weren’t able to safely enter a burning building because they lacked the appropriate gear, so we’re looking into how PPE has evolved over time.
Originally, firefighters lacked the specialist equipment to be able to enter buildings, with many fires being dealt with outside a structure. There earliest kind of gear was made out of wool because of it being able to shield firefighters against heat and cold. Rubber played an important role as well, with the material being worn over coats to provide another protective layer. Firefighters also wore rubber boots because it kept their feet dry.
The first helmets were made out of leather and an American called Jacobus Turck is credited as creating the original in 1740. The ‘modern’ variation is attributed to Henry Gratacap, who developed his version between 1821 and 1836. The dome-shaped helmet had a front shield and reinforced design. Other variations existed, such as the ‘merryweather’ worn by British firefighters during the Victorian era. This helmet was introduced in 1868, replacing the leather helmet.
After WW2, standards for PPE started to develop. Many organisations carried out performance testing and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), was at the forefront. The committee developed a firefighting jacket with three layers that consisted of a fire resistant outer layer, a middle layer that stopped water from soaking the wearer, and a final layer to protect against heat transfer.
Based on NFPA research, PPE was drastically improved. This culminated in the NFPA 1971 Standard on Protective Clothing for Structural Fire Fighting. It specifies “the minimum design, performance, safety, testing and certification requirements for structural fire fighting protective ensembles and ensemble elements that include coats, trousers, coveralls, helmets, gloves, footwear and interface components.”
The act established further protection for a firefighter through requiring all PPE to provide visibility and identification in different conditions. Respiratory and PASS devices were also improved, with the inclusion of masks that protected against harmful gases like carbon monoxide.
Today, PPE contains a mixture of different gear, including triple-layer clothing, breathing apparatus, PASS device and modern communication equipment. Fabrics have been updated and are made out of Kevlar or Nomex.