The Evolution of PPE

Issue 6 and Volume 3.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is a firefighter’s last line of defense and as such, changes in?PPE have had profound affects on firefighter safety. Today, we enjoy PPE ensembles that protect us from heat, flame and biological agents better than ever before—so well, in fact, that firefighters must learn new ways to sense warning signs in fire behavior other than simply “knowing” it’s too hot.

How did we get here? Following is a quick look back on just a few ways PPE changed over time.

Humble beginnings:

This original PPE concept (see photo 1921) was designed by the founder of Morning Pride, established in 1921 by Lawrence J. Grilliot, grandfather of Morning Pride’s current CEO Bill (William Lawrence) Grilliot.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, specialty companies that made fire service PPE didn’t exist. The apparel firefighters wore was often commissioned work performed by tailors and fabric purveyors; wool was often the fabric of choice, sometimes covered by rubber slickers. Special fireproof fabrics did not exist, and there was no national standard for certifying PPE until after WWII. In some cases, firefighters simply wore street clothing.

Having a ball … but hidden danger lurks:

Although these firefighters are enjoying the job (see photo 1965), the dangers of operating in these conditions are clear. This picture was taken in 1965, when long rubber and duck or canvas coats were standard. The off-gassing of poisons from the smoldering material and the lack of significant eye protection is obvious—but back then, we didn’t let that concern us.

The potentially tragic outcome from inhaling smoke has since been well documented in the loss of many, many firefighters.

Visibility a priority:

Can you see me now? Good.

As time went on, the color of PPE changed. Dark-colored rubber and duck coats were enhanced originally with yellow or silver stripes—in some cases actually painted on the coat!

Research by organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) led to retro-reflective stripes of larger widths and contrasting colors, improving firefighter visibility. This photo (1970) shows PPE circa 1970. PPE has seen many forms and styles of striping and color, from black with bright reflective contrasting stripes, to gear with equal contrasting stripes and in colors such as white, tan, bronze, yellow, red and even blue.

Today, firefighters can be found in almost any combination of colors and stripes, but one thing has become standard: an appropriate amount of striping and reflectivity to ensure better visibility of the firefighter.

Teamwork was always the focus:

These firefighters (see photo 1975) taking on a car fire in 1975 do so in quite a bit different manner than we do (or should do) today. Concerns about hood struts or exploding bumpers have added to the hazards of vehicle fires, but the use of SCBA—considered standard today at a car fire—was simply unheard of then.

From the neck up:

Although rubber pull-up boots continued to be in use until just recently, and rubber gloves protected the hands as best they could, little thought was given to firefighters’ necks and heads. In this picture (see photo 1975 #2) the firefighters’ hair length clearly reflects the styles of the 1970s, and it wasn’t uncommon for them to singe or burn off their hair at fires. Soon after, hoods slowly began to be accepted as an additional and necessary layer of protection.

Note: Although firefighters of this era did have SCBA, it was only normally used when it was “really” needed—back then, that was when the interior conditions made it impossible to breathe—but so often, not a moment before.

Time changes (almost) everything:

Covered in soot and clearly very proud of the job they’ve done, these firefighters (see photo Late 1970s) are wearing state-of-the-art PPE for the late 1970s, including Cairns leather helmets with Bourke eye shields. The interior of those helmets, while providing a level of protection, did not provide the impact protection of today’s NFPA-compliant and tested helmets. The long duck coats with minimal layered protection and long rubber pull-up boots provided the only protection from the fire.

The SCBA was a “demand”?Scott air pack. The wearer had to suck the air in to start the flow, and then the air continued to flow as needed, unlike today’s SCBA, where the air flows constantly in a positive pressure manner.

Firefighters “back in the day” understood little about the long-term dangers of smoke and soot. Being dirty and taking in some smoke was simply accepted as part of the job. Today, firefighters have little excuse—we know the danger of breathing smoke, and we must take all possible measures to avoid the risk. Recent?findings suggest that the PPE firefighters used in the past didn’t do a good job in protecting them against cancer-causing agents we encounter. Researchers found, for example, that firefighters are twice as likely to develop testicular cancer and have significantly higher rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma and prostate cancer than non-firefighters.

One very visible and interesting item shown in this picture: “orange fireball gloves”—simply utility gloves painted bright orange. Although they were very bright, the protection they provided against burns and related injuries was minimal.?

Looking toward the future:

Although we’re better protected today than we’ve ever been (see photo 2008), PPE innovation hasn’t stopped. Now the focus is on developing PPE that can protect firefighters against cancer-causing materials as well as chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) agents. In 2005, the IAFF teamed with several organizations to create “Project HEROES” (Homeland Emergency Response Operational and Equipment Systems). The goal is to create certified PPE that is indistinguishable from current structural firefighting gear, but which offers improved CBRN protection, as well as enhanced protection against cancer-causing materials, without sacrificing thermal protection, comfort and functionality.

The prototype gear, currently being field-tested includes hood, coat, gloves and pants with integrated bootie liner. The pieces form a vapor-tight seal where the coat meets the gloves, the pants meet the boots and the coat meets the pants. In addition, an innovative system captures the SCBA exhalation and feeds it into a duct system in the coat—providing an upper torso cooling system.

The CBRN option is reflected in NFPA 1971 (2007 edition) and is expected to hit the market this year.

Effective PPE design requires cooperation between members of the fire service, the NFPA and manufacturers—all working to strike the right balance between comfort, safety, and protection on the fireground.