Are Your Ears Burning? - PPE advances aren’t to blame for poor risk assessment & decision-making

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.

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Comment by Chris Miller on April 9, 2009 at 11:00pm
A lot of good points, Tim first off good point about reading smoke, Dodson now states in his programs that firefighters should learn to see heat rather than feel heat.

As Paul pointed out fires reach flashover sooner now. Firefighters 25 years ago did not see the amount of flashovers that occur today. High heat release rates from synthetic fuel packages, energy efficient buildings that hold heat, fuels with low mass to surface area ratios all make the fire environment a more dangerous place. The only way to combat it is to train to understand it.

Keep up the good work Tim, and look me up when you are in town in May.
Comment by Paul Young on March 3, 2009 at 10:51pm
As one of the new old guys, 21+ years, I believe in hoods. The fires we are fighting these days are hotter and faster burning, read reaching flashover faster than in "the old days". The new generation gear does let us get in deeper and without proper risk management and failure to read the smoke/building, that is what is getting us in trouble.
Comment by Timothy Sendelbach on March 3, 2009 at 8:06am

I won't argue we have a long way to go in area of heat release. Your closing comment reflects the need for continued research in the area of PPE. Great post - thank you!


Great points - SLOW DOWN!!! If we don't assess the environment, we likely won't understand it and will eventually become and element of it. Great post thanks!!!


I agree, but I also disagree. Everything needs to have a training component (that's a point of the obvious), but at some point folks have to be held accountable to common sense. Tenability and viability are the two terms that need to be shared and understood by all (work and enter tenable spaces for viable patients/victims).

Heat is not the only training aspect that needs to be addressed, we need to address the issue of reading the smoke conditions from the street. As soon as our feet hit the street we need to take a momentary pause, read the conditions and then deploy.

Again, great post - thanks!!!

Mary Ellen:

Thanks for your post - my response to your lightweight building construction request:


Don't spend much "time" in 'em, under 'em or around 'em.

Position yourself at a "distance" and prepare for collapse.

"Shield" yourself from the debris when they fall.

Thanks again for your post!


Whatever you do, DON'T GIVE UP, it's worth the fight. Please feel free to use the posted info as you see fit. Best of luck brother - keep up the good fight!


Well said - these will be lessons learned the hard way (and a lifetime of scars to prove it).

Thanks for the post!!!

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Comment by Art "ChiefReason" Goodrich on March 2, 2009 at 3:51pm
Risk assessment or the lack thereof has become a hot topic.
Many excuses are being proffered and runs the gamut.
"Risk assessment takes too long and is a waste of time anyway" is one reply that I got.
"Under qualified instructors are teaching inadequate risk assessment skills" is another.
If the risk assessment is a no-go interior, they "are goin' in anyway, cause someone MIGHT be in there".
"Sparky the Fire Dog ate our risk assessment plan, but that's OK because the LT says he could **** one out that would be better than the chief's".
2009 is suppose to be the break out year in the fire service for personal safety.
I know that I am tired of all of the excuses. We need commitment and personal responsibility to achieve any minor successes and then build upon those.
But, we make it too easy for the pessimists to poison our system with their negative attitudes that weakens our processes to the point that they are ineffective.
We need to think positive and then do it positively.
And for those who don't want to wear hoods?
You will only hear the sound of your ears burning off but ONCE!
Get use to saying "HUH?"
Comment by Tom Priddle on March 2, 2009 at 10:15am
I'm glad that this subject came up and I thank you. It seems that I constantly preach full PPE at my trainings but I continually get the old dogs refusing to wear hoods. Now it is getting to the extent to where they are teaching younger generations the old tricks and it scares me. I have gone as far as talking about liability and if ( god forbid) something would happen the investigation would reveal the fact that they were not in full PPE and insurance would not pay. I hope you don't mind but I would like to take your article back to my station and post it. Any other advise cause Im running out of ideas.
Comment by Mary Ellen Shea on March 2, 2009 at 12:00am
On another side-topic....Tim....I'd like to see you address the lightweight (truss) construction issue.
Comment by Mary Ellen Shea on March 1, 2009 at 11:57pm
Four words: You can't fix stupid.

But I give you props for trying.
Comment by FETC on February 28, 2009 at 9:04pm

I have spoken allot about this subject as well. The problem is "lack of training" in the use of our fully ecapsulated ensemble in real thermal insult conditions. The older (seasoned veterans) find it difficult to reformulate what they feel for heat through the newer PPE protection - or they are simply short minded over the fact that it "can be done" with the newer protection as compared to just reducing the ensemble.

Now as far as newer firefighters, who do not know what rubber coats, 3/4 hip boots, tin hats and no hoodies are..... they are only experienced to the level in which their Firefighter 1 and 2 allowed them to be. Add in the fact that most probies are only experienced to the new NFPA 1403 standard of "hay and pallets" in a pre-engineered concrete building that might (I repeat might see 500 degrees) and you now have a serious liability when they step off the truck and are expected to fight the red devil on his realistic BTU terms...

In my opinion, in all goes back to "realistic" thermal insult recognition. My guys have heard me preach it over and over. Being exposed repeatedly to thermal insult, with positive recognition of the actual interior temperatures; having the instructor call out the interior temperatures, so the brother can relate what he is actually feeling at the time of the call. Now that is realistic training.

Not fake smoke, wax paper, and silly obstacle courses erected in the apparatus bay and expect the firefighter to know what the limitations are of his or her PPE...

Comment by lutan1 on February 28, 2009 at 8:53pm
Risk assess, risk assess, risk assess!

The mentality that we MUST go interior on every fire has to change.

We must risk assess every scene and develop situational awareness, along with improved knowledge of construction types.

I saw a motto/mantra recently that was used in the education about the hazards of H2S- Education, Detection, Protection.

The same can easily be adpated to fire fighting-
Education- educate members on building construction, risk assessments, situational awareness, hydration, etc

Detection- increased situational awareness and risk assessments will lessen (not remove) the likelihood of firefighters becoming trapped or injured, or putting themselves into even more dangerous situations.

Protection- with increased education and protection, we will protect ourselves.
Comment by Ben Waller on February 28, 2009 at 8:34pm
Back in the day, the gear was primarily designed to protect us from water, not from fire.
Structures were more solid, we had more manpower so we could multitask the attack, and we had real ventilation or we weren't able to go very far inside.

It's not the gear that's killing us in's the structures, the fuels, and the lack of manpower.

On the other hand, the new gear doesn't shed body heat as efficiently as the old gear, and we wear it for a lot of non-firefighting tasks like extrication. Maybe the gear is contributing to killing us, but just not in the same way as some of us might think.

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