Archive for the ‘Fire Fighting’ Category
Firefighters have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Walking into a house fire that could reach 1000 degrees in under a minute (that’s not a typo) or a chemical fire that may reach double or triple that temperature in seconds, while battling smoke inhalation as well, means a firefighter’s life depends on being supplied with the best equipment that money can buy. Without the proper gear, firefighters can’t stay inside a burning structure long enough to rescue victims or fight the fire successfully.
So, what is the right gear that keeps them safe and still allows them to do their jobs?
Tim Fitts, a veteran firefighter in North Carolina, and Coordinator of certification classes for firefighters and rescue squads at Guilford Technical Community College, demonstrated his gear on a 95 degree day in September. Fire isn’t selective about the weather, so it’s a good thing for us that firefighters train and work under all kinds of conditions.
The firefighter uniform is generally called ‘turnout gear’ by firefighters because they turn it inside out when not in use, so that they can step into it quickly and pull it on/up when the fire bell/siren sounds. Firefighters need to get completely dressed in about a minute, so any safe system that will speed up the process is used. Some guys pull on the boots and pants, grab the rest of the gear and finish getting dressed in the truck as it pulls out of the fire station.
The official name for the gear is Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
Parts of the firefighter uniform:
While on the job at a fire or rescue operation that might result in a fire, most firefighters will wear these pieces of clothing:
- Boots, insulated with steel toes and steel shank
- Cotton t-shirt
- Gloves, insulated leather
- Helmet, with neck flap and eye protection
- Hood, Nomex
- Jacket, insulated, with Velcro and spring hooks
- Pants, insulated, with Velcro and spring hooks, with extra padding and pockets
These three hoods are each made of different fabrics:
- Kevlar blend
Firefighters put a hood on before the jacket, so that it sits properly on the shoulders. They tend to wear two hoods to protect against a flashover, giving their heads the extra defense needed in the intense heat. If a flashover occurs, the firefighter will have about two seconds to get out of the building. If the hoods are not providing enough coverage, it will feel like 1000 bees stinging the ears at one time – it’s too hot to stand. It’s time to get out.
The helmets are made of thick, heat resistant plastic and often include Kevlar or Nomex flaps for the ears.
Firefighters are taught to fight fires on their knees (not while crawling) so the extra padding helps cushion the wear and tear on the knees.
In addition, the firefighters put on:
- Airline and pressure gauge
- Positive pressure mask
- PASS device
- SCBA shoulder straps, airtank bottle and backpack frame
The PASS device (Personal Alert Safety System) is a personal safety device used by firefighters entering a hazardous environment – a burning building. When the firefighter does not move for 30 seconds, it makes a loud, shrill, really annoying sound, letting others in the area know that something is wrong.
The mask on the left is a newer model, the one on the right? Older. There has been an upgrade in technology for the plastic in the mask, developed because at high temperatures, the old plastic would fail (melt). It was the weakest part of the uniform. The new version will not fail as quickly.
Note that even the air tank is protected with a fire retardant fabric.
The idea is to be protected from the fire and to be able to breathe safely while he/she works. The positive pressure mask on the SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) gear keeps the toxic air out as much as possible by allowing the tank air to flow continuously, even if the firefighter is not inhaling. By the way, the tanks are full of compressed air, not oxygen.
Most of the clothes have reflective tape so that the firefighter can be seen more easily through the smoke and low light/darkness. Some departments are large enough that they use color-coded reflective tape in order to tell the full-time firefighters and the volunteers apart.
The uniforms are sized to the individual firefighters, so that when they bend over, there is at least a two-inch overlap with the fabric pieces, and no skin is exposed to the crippling, blistering heat.
Hip boots of years ago, are now old school because of the area of the body they left unprotected from heat. Now the boots have steel toes and shanks and are calf high or knee high in length.
When fully dressed, the firefighter is wearing about 70 pounds of equipment. Add more weight for the tools they have to carry – picks, axes, etc – needed to fight the fire.
After ten years, all turnout gear must be thrown away. It wears out because of repeated exposure to the intense heat and toxic elements. Many large, active fire departments dispose of the clothing after only five years, because of their more frequent use and improvements in technology.
Firefighting gear is not fireproof. It is fire retardant.
Some of the clothing has 3 layers, each layer performing a different function. People can only tolerate temperatures to 135 degrees, so the specialized fabrics extend the time available to do the job. Firefighters get very uncomfortable at 250 degrees, and the time limit for the firefighter at that point is about 30 seconds to reach someone and get out. One of the firefighters at Command keeps track of the men/women – where they are in the structure and how long they’ve been working the fire.
Nomex degrades at 400 degrees, so needs to be used in addition to other fabrics if fighting a structural fire. It tends to split when the wearer is running. When combined with Kevlar, it becomes more flexible and the fabric breathes a bit better.
PBI degrades at 1100 degrees, allowing a much better chance for the firefighter to stay safe while fighting a house blaze. It stays intact in the extreme temperatures and allows the firefighter extra time to get to a victim and then get out.
Gortex helps shed water
Heat goes through each layer a bit at a time. Each layer is a necessary barrier, in its place to protect the firefighter and keep his body from getting hotter than is safe.
After fires, all of the clothing needs to be taken apart and washed, because everything in a fire is carcinogenic. Hmm…that means that the entire time a firefighter is working the fire, his equipment has to protect him from the flames and the smoke, as well as anything else thrown into the air, both in the active fire and in the area outside the building.
Some fire Captains insist that the clothing be stored away from the sleeping area at the station, because it may still contain toxins even after being washed. If you get a chance to visit a Fire Station, you might be able to tell where the gear is kept, before you ever reach the room. The smoky odor is sharp and unforgettable.
Cost of Basic Turnout Gear (approximate)
- Pants, jacket, gloves – $1,150.
- Boots – $175.
- Helmet – $150.
- Nomex hood – $60.
- PASS device – $300.
- Airpack with mask – $4,500.
Tim Fitts told us about the testing going on at NC State’s College of Textiles, in the search for better, more effective, fire retardant fabrics.
To see a demonstration of how a firefighter’s uniform reacts to fire, click here for NC State’s PyroMan video:
For a demonstration of how quickly heat from a flame penetrates protective layers before reaching the skin, click here for NC State’s PyroMan animation:
Every second counts when rescuing you or your pets in a fire. We know that a simple house fire can fully engulf an 8’x10’ room in 90 seconds. That’s not a typo. If the firefighters are on the scene before that happens to the entire house, they need as much lead time as possible in order to keep a rescue operation from becoming a recovery operation. That’s when the best turnout gear on the market is worth every dime.
*Photos by Patti Phillips, taken at Guilford Technical Community College, NC, during The 2014 Writers’ Police Academy.
Thanks to Tim Fitts for generously sharing his knowledge and expertise. Tim is a veteran firefighter and Fire Occupational Extension Coordinator at GTCC. He’s in charge of all Con Ed certification and non-certification classes in Fire and Rescue subjects to members of NC fire departments and rescue squads. Any errors in fact are mine, not his.
* * *
Patti Phillips is a transplanted metropolitan New Yorker/north Texan, now living in the piney state of North Carolina.
Her best investigative days are spent writing, attending The Writers’ Police Academy, cooking, traveling for research and playing golf. Her time on the golf course has been murderously valuable while creating the perfect alibi for the chief villain in her novel, One Sweet Motion. Did you know that there are spots on a golf course that can’t be accessed by listening devices?
Fireworks displays are often hand-fired, Joe Collins’ favorite way of shooting a show. And, this past weekend, he and a friend photographed a hand-fired show from beginning to end. Here’s what he had to say about the experience.
Above, is a trailer loaded out for the show with racks, mortars, buckets, post-hole digger, fire extinguishers and other things needed.
The show is “Dropped”—delivered by a special crew with the proper training, equipment, placards, trucks and certifications.
The mortars are dug in. Fours are in front, fives are in the middle and threes are at the end. This placement reduces the chances of loading the wrong sized shell into a mortar.
Finale racks are screwed together, and the shells are dropped. Finales are long chains of shells tied together with quickmatch so that when one shell is lit, the entire rack will fire in sequence.
Above, you can see all the finale racks ready to be shot.
Bucket of 5s
The shells to be shot individually are put into buckets—basically a garbage can. With the lid turned upside down this provides some protection for the shells before they are loaded. Each size of shell has its own bucket. The person responsible for getting the shells out for the loader is called a “Bucket Tender.”
The cakes are set up. A cake is a multi-part firework. Each cardboard tube contains a shell or effect and all are lit off in sequence once the fuse is lit.
The next step is to wait for it to get dark. Bring bug spray, lawn chairs and plenty of water to drink!
Something very much like a road flare—called a “Fusee” is fastened to the end of a piece of conduit. To light a shell, touch the burning end of the Fusee to the quickmatch or visco, make sure it is lit and briskly step away.
The bucket tender is to the left. And the shooter is lighting quickmatch which will light the shell.
To the loaders and bucket tenders, this is what a shell looks like as it’s lifting. In this case, it’s a five-inch shell.
I like to tell people I haven’t seen a fireworks show since I started shooting them because what you see above is pretty much all that I get to see.
The loader is getting more shells from the bucket tender to be loaded into mortars. Note the fusee in the back pocket of the loader—in this case me. The extra fusee is a backup if something goes wrong with the one being used to light shells.
Yes, we are often that close to lifting shells as we are loading. Although it looks as though I have my head over the mortar, I’m trying to be as far away from the mortar as I can, facing another direction as I drop the shell.
A lot of teamwork, training, experience and most importantly, trust is involved in shooting a fireworks show.
And everyone has to hustle, while being safe.
Every once in a while, hit a cake or two. Yes, it does sometimes get a bit bright.
When the bucket tenders are out of shells, they turn their bucket over to let everyone know that they have no more shells. Then they can watch the end of the show.
Naturally, the last thing fired are the finale’s. I was about three-foot away from the racks when the shells started lifting.
When the show is done, every mortar and cake is checked to see if all the shells have fired. If a shell hasn’t lifted for some reason, the mortar is filled with water and it’s removed to go back to the fireworks company to see what went wrong.
Above, you can see where we blew the top off a five-inch mortar. It landed two-feet from a bucket tender’s head.
Then the hard work starts, tearing down everything and packing it away for the trip back to the fireworks bunker.
The job of a pyrotechnician is physically demanding, sometimes dangerous, doesn’t pay very well, and requires a lot of planning, training and experience to pull off, but the result is worth it!
* Joe Collins is a twelve-year veteran firefighter/paramedic in the busiest volunteer fire department in his county. He holds numerous fire and EMS certifications—many of the same as professional firefighters. During the day he works as a Critical Care Paramedic in the highest call volume EMS service in Iowa. For the past seven years, he has been a professional pyrotechnican working in the fireworks display industry.