A house is on fire and people are trapped inside the burning inferno.   High pitched wails of fire sirens pierce the still night air.  In rush the firefighters to rescue those inside.  They are dressed in gear which makes them look very frightening.   Firefighters were not always able to safely enter a burning structure to rescue trapped victims; it is their modern PPE that enables them to be safer and have more time to assist victims in any type of fire or rescue emergency.  PPE is the acronym for Personal Protective Equipment.  "PPE refers to any clothing, helmets, and equipment, such as their self-contained breathing apparatus, which are worn to protect firefighters from injury."[1] "Throughout history firefighting personal protective equipment has evolved in many ways.  Fire can be a harsh reality, but today's firefighters are much more prepared and protected than the firemen . . . years ago." [2]  People are rescued from the deathly grips of fire every day by firefighters due to the evolution of their helmets, clothing, and personal safety devices.





            Fire helmets have evolved over the 250 plus years they have been in existence.  Of all the protection a firefighter has, the helmet was made and perfected early on.  The first helmet was made by Jacobus Turck in 1731.  It was round with a high crown and a narrow brim.  The firefighter in the mid 1700s was required to wear a helmet while on duty.  Matthew DuBois added wire to the brim for resisting moisture, warping, and heat.[3]  In 1830, a New York volunteer firefighter and luggage maker, Henry Gratacap, made the first leather helmet which had eight combs or segments that were specially treated to resist rotting from over-exposure to water.  Even then, the fire helmets of the 1800s were mainly used for decoration, not the wear and tear of fighting a fire.[4]  The helmets of today's firefighters are made with many protective issues in mind.  They now have 16 combs because the more combs present, the stronger and more durable they become, especially against heat.[5]    Today's helmets protect against water, heat, and falling objects as well as providing vital protection to the neck, but it does not provide adequate eye protection.  They are made in different colors to denote the rank of the firefighter with one quick glance, especially in the smoky environment in which the firefighters work.[6]  The fire helmet is still required for every firefighter responding to a fire.   




            The clothing that is worn by a firefighter is one of the most important pieces of equipment that they have.  "The coat and pants used for structural firefighting are commonly referred to as Bunker Gear or Turnout Gear, and are designed to protect the wearer from the hazards of fighting fires and other dangers that may be encountered."[7]  The clothes of past firefighters are so much different than they are today.   The first uniforms were for special occasions only, such as parades or celebrations.  They would wear everyday clothes to the fire scene since they did not enter the burning structure; they only fought the fire from the outside.  The NFPA or National Fire Protection Association sets the standards and requirements of the PPE as well as certifying all of the clothing that is worn by current firefighters. 

            Boots are very important in the safety of a firefighter due to the hot and sharp objects they step on and the falling objects that may trap and injure their feet.  The boots of old were made of rubber and used to go up to the mid-thigh, hence the name "Three-quarters" boots.  Now the NFPA requires them to made of leather or rubber, have steel-toes, be hard soled, and withstand many different blows and burns, as well as being below the knee. [8] 

            Gloves protect the firefighter's hands from the heat and sharp objects they encounter as well as to protecting them while using the powerful equipment, ropes, and hoses.  Past firefighters had to supply their own leather gloves.  Gloves today are made of a three-layer fire and heat resistant, high-performance fabric, called Kevlar.[9]   The gloves are required by NFPA to withstand and protect the firefighter from:  flame, heat, vapor, liquids and sharp objects.

            The jackets and pants are the pieces of PPE that have evolved more than any other.  The first firefighters did not need much protection because they fought the fires from the outside of the burning structure.  Thus, early jackets were made for dryness and warmth.  The firefighters from the past did not have any special pants to protect their legs because they had their "Three-quarters" boots and long trench coat.  The trench coat was made of leather, canvas, or rubber with a cotton or wool lining, because cotton and wool is fire resistant and works to keep the heat of the flames and the coldness of winter away from the firefighter's body.[10]   The jacket is now made of a complex mixture of fire resistant materials and can weigh as much as 15 pounds.   Today's bunker pants are the first article of PPE the firefighter puts on when he is dispatched to a fire or another emergency that requires leg protection.   The bunker pants themselves can weigh up to 30 pounds so the firefighter must have suspenders to help hold his pants up. [11]   The pants also have reinforced knees because of all of the crawling they do.

            The NFPA 1971 Standard on Protective Clothing for Structural Fire Fighting requested an outer layer of flame-resistant fabric that would not be destroyed through charring, separating, or melting when exposed to 500 °F for a five-minute period; a second layer to prevent moisture from penetrating through to the wearer; and a third layer to provide thermal insulation from radiant, conducted, and convective heat. [12]  The NFPA also requires reflective trim on the bunker gear to provide visibility and identification in many different conditions.[13]  This standard is now used for all firefighting boots, gloves, jackets, and pants in the United States.  All of the bunker gear together can weigh up to 70 pounds without the breathing equipment, but it is a must wear when fighting fires.   Modern PPE enables a firefighter to safely enter a burning building to extinguish the flames and rescue any possible victims. The clothing of today's firefighters protects them from anything they come into contact with and is required whenever one is fighting a fire or dealing with another emergency, such as a car crash.

            Firefighter Personal Safety Devices or PSDs are very important to today's firefighters.  PSDs are the most important as well as the newest pieces of firefighting equipment.   In 1863, James Braidwood invented a breathing apparatus which is credited as being the first breathing apparatus for firefighters.  Air was pumped from bellows through a hose and into a mask; it was dubbed the "Smoke mask."  It was rarely used because it was unreliable and bulky.[14]  During and after World War II, firefighters started to use gas masks, but these did not protect against carbon monoxide nor function in an oxygen-deficient environment.[15]  In 1945, Scott Aviation introduced the Scott Air Pack.[16]  This Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus or SCBA is now a very essential piece of firefighting gear because it provides important protection for the firefighter's lungs, respiratory tract, eyes, and face.[17]  The tank weighs about 30 pounds and can hold up to 30 minutes of air.  It is worn on the firefighter's back and is connected to an airtight mask that fits securely on the firefighter's face. 

            The Personal Alert Safety System, or PASS, is the other very important piece of PSD.   PASS is a small battery-operated box that has motion detectors attached all over it that are used to warn other firefighters that a fellow firefighter is in trouble.[18]  If the device does not detect any motion for 15-30 seconds, it sounds a low beep to warn the firefighter that it is about to activate. If the firefighter is alright, he can move so it does not sound a false alarm.  However, if the firefighter is seriously injured or trapped, he will not be able to move so the device will then emit a 95 decibel alarm to notify the other firefighters that one of their brothers is in trouble.   If the firefighter is lost or trapped, he can manually activate the system.  It can easily be activated while wearing gloves and is made to be operational in flammable conditions.[19]  PASS was first introduced to the firefighters in 1982, when the NFPA set the standards for them.[20]  PASS and SCBA have saved countless lives of firefighters who were just trying to do their job.   Firefighter's personal safety devices have truly increased a firefighter's ability to enter a raging inferno without having to continuously worry about their safety.  They are able to concentrate on completing the task at hand.



            The evolution of firefighter's helmets, clothing, and personal safety devices have certainly enabled more people to be rescued from the death sentence that a fire was.    The Personal Protective Equipment can weigh as much as 75 pounds total.  Though it is very heavy, the firefighters know how to work while wearing it.  They realize how important their PPE is to their safety in their very dangerous job.   Without the PPE of today, firefighters would be unable to enter burning buildings to rescue those trapped inside nor would they be able to extinguish the fire so quickly.   The death rate by fire would skyrocket as would the destruction made by the inability to rapidly contain a blaze.  "Without a doubt, no equipment is more important than the gear that is used to protect firefighters from the many hazards they confront. Dependent on the nature of the emergency incident, firefighters always utilize... Personal Protective Equipment to help shield themselves from injury."[21]  Large strides have been made in the evolution of firefighter's Personal Protection Equipment.  As a result, the firefighters of today are much safer than those of decades past whenever confronted with a roaring inferno or even a small blaze.


                [1] Cliff Williams, "Turnout Gear" in "Tools of the Trade", [http://www.simsburyfd.org/SVFC/Tools.htm].

                [2] Paul Hasenmeier, "Today and Tomorrow" in "The History of Firefighter Personal Protective Equipment",[http://www.fireengineering.com/index/articles/display/331803/articl...],June 16, 2008.

                [3] Noel Shankel, "Firefighter Helmet History", [http://www.ehow.com/about_6472570_firefighter-helmet-history.html].

                [4] "History" in "Wiki: Bunker Gear",[http://wapedia.mobi/en/Bunker_gear],September 2008.



                [7] Williams, "Tools of the Trade".

                [8] Wiki: Bunker Gear.

                [9]"Then and Now: Gloves and Boots", in "Firefighter Gear: Then and Now", [http://firelink.monster.com/benefits/articles/9911-firefighter-gear...].

                [10]Albert Lee and Rob Meyer, "Turnout Gear", in "Escape through Time", [http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/escape/timefire.html].

                [11] Wiki: Bunker Gear          

                [12] Lee and Meyer

                [13] Williams, "Tools of the Trade".

                [14] Hasenmeier

                [15] "Firefighter Gear: Then and Now"

                [16] Hasenmeier

                [17] Williams

                [18] Lee and Meyer

                [19] "PASS Device", [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PASS_device], March 30, 2009.

                [20] Hasenmeier

                [21] Williams

Views: 15225

Replies to This Discussion

Nicely done. Great way to educate the younger generation on how lucky they are to have they equipment and technology today compared to previous generations.
This was the research report that I had to write for 8th grade. I was able to choose any topic I wanted to. This is what the graders got! I got a 100% on it! Thanks!
Good piece!Great job for 8th grade too!I know 50 yr. olds who went through a major transistion who could not explain it.
Very nicly done Rachel.


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