Over the last 25 years, protective clothing manufacturers have made great strides in designing a safer, more effective protective ensemble. In years past, firefighters were provided with nothing more than a raincoat, tin helmet, rubber boots and fireball gloves (made of plastic, no less). Today, most firefighters throughout the country are provided with a fully encapsulating ensemble that incorporates technological advancements in thermal protection, breathability, chemical resistance and reflectivity, to name a few.
Despite these advancements, a disturbingly large group of firefighters continues to argue that the modern ensemble puts firefighters at risk. The most common claim: Firefighters are going in deeper and faster without any sense of the rapidly rising high-heat conditions surrounding them. Others claim the required encapsulation (use of protective hoods) prevents them from using their noncompliant anatomical thermal couples (aka ears) to sense the rising heat conditions.
Although this argument has occurred over the past several years, I became increasingly concerned when I recently overheard heard some fellow firefighters talking about reducing their protection levels to improve situational awareness, by choosing to use a thinner hood or even choosing not to wear a hood at all.
How can this be possible? How is it that with the modern marvels of thermal imaging cameras (TIC), telemetry, computerized fire modeling, state-of-the-art communications equipment, incident- and risk-management programs, coupled with advanced research on fire behavior, that we continue to focus on primitive, self-destructive methods to solve our problems?
But is technology putting us at risk? Would we be better served by issuing our firefighters minimum protection instead of a fully encapsulating protective ensemble capable of withstanding temperature extremes? Would a reduction of thermal protection reduce the unnecessary overexposure experienced by firefighters throughout the country?
The truth is obvious. It’s not technology that’s putting us at risk, it’s poor decision making and our less-than-aggressive efforts in the field of training. It’s our failure to adjust our traditional tactics in accordance with improved protection levels (risk homeostasis). It’s the misapplication of technology—failure to use TICs during interior operations, failure to effectively evaluate conditions during our initial size-up, failure to read the presenting smoke conditions, failure to determine overhead conditions using fog patterns and most importantly, our failure to ventilate buildings—that continue to expose our firefighters to unnecessary risk.
Our protective ensemble is not and cannot be used as a depth gauge for interior firefighting. Sure, a degree of thermal protection is required for making entry into a fire, but the highest degree of protection is designed to get us out. Burning ears, tingling shoulders and gear discoloration are neither safe nor reliable indicators for decision making on the modern fireground.
Most firefighters have immediate access to advanced fire training. Yet some consciously choose to rely on past experience as their sole source of education. Today’s firefighters must be students of fire behavior; we must be practitioners of the trade to its fullest extent.
We must also understand that with most technological advancements, a change in behavior is required. Case in point: When we issue new tools and equipment or replace old equipment, such as the protective ensemble, we must provide detailed training in its use AND limitations. If we fail to train our firefighters properly, how can we expect them to change their behavior in relation to its use?
Advancements in technology will continue to find their way into the fire service (as they should), and we all must learn to adapt our behavior accordingly. At the same time, we must not blindly accept technology as the lone solution to our problems. As students of the profession, it’s our duty to challenge the way we do business and to seek out new technologies that will ultimately support our efforts. It’s our duty to ask the hard questions of manufacturers and vendors to ensure what’s being designed and developed is truly safe and effective for practical application. We must also use redundant safety tactics to protect us from technological/mechanical failures (i.e., redundant search techniques when using a TIC).
The risk posed by the modern fireground continues to evolve at an unimaginable rate. So too must our strategy and tactics. The application of traditional tactics on the modern fireground cannot and will not lead to success. These extreme risks require the application of modern tools, techniques and equipment. As fire officers and fire chiefs, it’s our duty to ensure our decisions, and the decisions of our subordinates, are in line with the identified risk.
In short, it’s our duty to ensure the application of these modern technologies is within the guidelines of recognized best practices, and not those of kitchen-table bravado.