Firefighter turnouts: Does color impact safety?

The visibility of department members the fireground and on the roadways is critical to reduce the risk of injuries

In a previous article I discussed the development of a structural PPE risk assessment. In this article I will touch on what happens with the introduction of real data into the risk assessment process.

The use of department data can bring to light important considerations that may have been overlooked. This article will focus on threat recognition and prioritizing the threat.

Organizations must start the risk assessment with a serious and realistic reflection of the actual environments that the PPE will be expected to perform in, not just structural firefighting.

I separate this potential threat into two separate risk categories: thermal threat and non-thermal threat. These are not hard and fast, but should be considered templates and decisions should be based on data.

I recently worked with a metropolitan fire department to introduce data into the risk assessment framework with interesting results.

Data was collected from the fire department to determine when firefighters were actually wearing the structural PPE. The data that was compiled included not only structural fires, but also structural alarm soundings, vehicle fires, vehicle accidents, false alarms, and various other situations.

The risks to the firefighter during each situation, and potential threats, were reviewed.

The data was reviewed and the numbers are as follows:

The department wore structural PPE more than 32,000 times in a year. Structural fires accounted for 3,989 structural fire responses. In addition, the fire department responded to 6,287 alarm soundings wearing structural PPE.

They also responded to 991 vehicle fires, 8,892 vehicle accidents and 11,885 false alarms in structural PPE. A key piece of data is that more 14,100 of the calls were "after dark."

"After dark" is from 6 p.m to 6 a.m. The fire department is also responsible for more than 3,000 miles of freeway and roadways.

What did we do with the data?
The risk potential was developed in Step 1 of the risk assessment and (previous article) was used to prioritize the data according to threat and occurrence as well as thermal and non-thermal threat to the firefighter.

The threat to the wearer was prioritized by the significance of the threat and how often they occur using the following chart:


Each of these categories is further divided into two groups — "Non-Thermal Threat" and "Thermal Threat" — to represent the actual environment that the firefighter will experience.

While structural PPE is primarily designed for structural firefighting, it provides necessary protection for other related fire service duties.

There are many times when firefighters will don structural PPE for a variety of reasons including use as protection from the elements.

The findings
The highest occurrence with a significant threat came from firefighter visibility. Firefighter visibility on the fireground and on the roadways is critical to firefighter safety.

Given the high frequency of exposure of fire personnel to low visibility/dark situations, research was conducted into possible solutions for trim configurations on the structural ensemble.

The goal of the research was to use various trim configurations and colors to enhance firefighters' visibility and increase their conspicuity when operating on emergency scenes wearing PPE in both daylight and low light/night scenarios.

Daytime visibility
Studies reviewed indicate that daytime conspicuity is improved by increasing the contrast between the wearer and the background scene through the use of trim with fluorescent color pigments.

The conclusion of a study by Ziegler and DuPont is that high contrast and high visibility are achieved in the daytime using lime-yellow or yellow.

Fluorescent yellow-green is included in NFPA 1971. As the daylight fades, the presence of low wavelength light (such as UV) enhances the brightness of fluorescent colored trims and leads to increased in the visibility and conspicuity of the wearer.

Afternoon and nighttime visibility
In low-daylight approaching nighttime situations, the fluorescent materials take on a much greater importance as they are recognized at greater distances with greater accuracy.

This lengthens the reaction time from when drivers see the wearer and increases safety. Several studies conclude that saturated colors are more conspicuous during nighttime operations than white.

Reflected white is very common during nighttime operations and the use of reflected color is important to firefighter safety.

The research indicated that fluorescent yellow-green retro-reflective trim provides increased contrast between the wearer and the scene background during daytime and low light operations and the saturated color increase visibility and conspicuity during nighttime operations. Drivers may not recognize reflected white as a person above the reflected visible white noise.

This led to a review of the current specification. The purpose of the risk assessment is to make sure that all of the situations that PPE is worn are considered. Visibility is just one such issue.

With training, all NFPA 1971 certified PPE will protect the firefighter in that "bad day at the office," but the PPE must also be practical and safe for other uses as well. 

About the author

Captain Mike McKenna has more than 31 years of professional fire service experience including 19 years as a fire captain and seven years as a fire district safety officer. Capt. McKenna has been instructing Fire Technology at American River College since 2000, and has more than 16 years of fire service program management and problem solving and solution development.

Capt. McKenna has been involved with the NFPA fire service standards development since 1988 and sits as a member of NFPA 1971 and NFPA 1801. He has published several articles on firefighter issues and has developed risk management solutions as a Fire Service Risk Management Consultant for Bragg & Associates of Roseville, Calif. Capt. McKenna can be contacted via e-mail at

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