More than 20 years ago, the U.S. Fire Administration asked us to develop specifications for personal protective equipment for urban search and rescue. The focus areas at were technical rescue, swift water rescue and contaminated water diving.
The project was undertaken while we were at Texas Research Institute and culminated with a report that provided a series of recommended standard requirements for each type of application.
We used an advisory committee consisting of responder from different areas of expertise and different parts of the country. This committee provided a wealth of information for responder practices and experience.
The committee dictated USAR protection needs according to the following priorities:
- Physical hazard protection (rough surfaces, jagged edges, pointed objects and falling/flying debris)
- On-site visibility
- Clothing form, fit and mobility (including comfort)
- Particulate protection
- Limited flame and heat protection
- Limited chemical flash-fire protection
- Limited electrical-exposure protection
- Minimal chemical protection
- Minimal biological protection
They further defined the protection needs by the respective body area to be protected. For example, particulate exposure was primarily a concern for the responder's respiratory system.
The ensuing investigative work with the help of the advisory committee identified a number of specific features, which in turn led to the development of proposed specifications. These specifications were backed by research to support the selection of test methods and the establishment of proposed criteria of existing and candidate products.
This information was then reported back to the user committee to determine what levels of performance should be set.
The report was favorably received by the FEMA USAR teams to the extent that those in charge of procuring PPE would tear off the back pages of the report containing the specifications and use this in selecting their protective clothing and equipment.
Advent of NFPA 1951
Some years later, NFPA 1951, Standard on Protective Ensemble for USAR Operations. When it was first promulgated in 2001, this standard defined a full ensemble of clothing much in the same way as NFPA 1971 does for turnout clothing.
But the clothing was to be lighter with less thermal insulation, more physically rugged and intended for longer wearing times with a higher level of breathability.
In fact, the standard borrowed many of the requirements applied to turnout gear. So as expected, many manufacturers used many of the same materials used in structural firefighting gear, minus the thermal barrier. Some new materials also were developed expressly for NFPA 1951.
Initially, garments, gloves and footwear all required some form of a barrier. But in 2007, the NFPA 1951 committee created three categories of ensembles: utility operations (no liquid hazards), rescue and recovery operations (with liquid hazards), and a chemical/biological terrorism protective ensemble (CBRN).
These categories apply to garments and gloves since helmets and footwear have the same requirements in both utility and rescue and recovery ensemble. The new ensemble types were intended to address a broader range of technical-rescue operations and, in fact, the standard was renamed Standard on Protective Ensembles for Technical Rescue Incidents.
Technical rescue gear in the marketplace
The success of NFPA 1951 has been limited. While there were a number of products that came out after the standard took effect, interest in the standard has always been limited.
A current review of the products that have been certified from the two leading certification organizations — Safety Equipment Institute and Underwriters Laboratories — show the following:
- Eight manufacturers certify garments, typically coats and pants, but also coveralls with a predominate listing of products for rescue and recovery as opposed to utility operations.
- Four manufacturers offer one or more certified technical-rescue helmets
- Four manufacturers have footwear certified to NFPA 1951; some styles are dual certified with NFPA 1971
- No manufacturer specifically positions a glove against NFPA 1951. When offered by the few manufacturers making this claim, these products are dual certified with NFPA 1971
Many years ago there was a popular idea that technical-rescue gear be used during vehicle extrications because many of these responses entail the same hazards originally envisioned as protection needs for USAR gear (physical hazards in combination with potential for flash fire and exposure to blood and body fluids).
This approach never went anywhere because fire departments were concerned that the lighter, more comfortable (and cheaper) technical rescue gear would be misused for structural firefighting. There was the equal concern for being able to manage two systems of protective clothing.
Perhaps the most glaring shortcoming of NFPA 1951 or the market's response to the standard has been in the area of gloves. Anyone who has gone to any major fire service trade show has surely to notice the vast number of extrication gloves being sold by various companies.
These are often brightly colored with multiple reinforcements and designed to provide a high level of protection without significantly compromising hand function. Yet, none of these gloves are certified to NFPA 1951.
There are two possible reasons for this: the gloves cannot meet the NFPA 1951 requirements, or manufacturers and end users don't believe the standard reflects their needs for hand protection.
The future of technical rescue gear
The 2013 edition of NFPA 1951 took effect at the end of August with very few significant changes. Most of the committee work focused on improving test methods and clarifying the application of specific criteria to respective products.
So the question is whether the new edition of the standard is any more useful or appropriate than the old edition?
There is value for products that conform to the standard but at the same time, the standard misses the mark in a number of areas. To our knowledge, a number of garments are specifically designed and certified to this standard.
Rescue and recovery garments comprise two basic design approaches: a single layer or two layers consisting of an outer shell and liquid barrier. There also are single-layer, non-barrier utility garments being made, some similar to military battle dress uniforms.
All of these garments are relatively light, flexible, and breathable (as a requirement in the standard).
If there are any shortcomings for garments, helmets and footwear is that there is little difference (and sometimes also cost) as compared with their structural firefighting counterparts. Part of this ensues from commonality of many requirements between NFPA 1951 and NFPA 1971.
If we learned anything in our project with the U.S. Fire Administration some 20 years ago, it was that the needs and protection priorities were much different for technical rescue than they were for structural firefighting. As evidence, we see a total lack of compliance for extrication gloves to the NFPA 1951 standard.
If industry products were not fully doing the job, then injury statistics or complaints would bear out the inadequacies of current market products. Yet we are not aware of any such reporting.
We are not aware of any radically new material and clothing design technologies that are on the horizon that would change the market or use of technical rescue protective clothing and equipment. It is likely that the use of technical rescue gear will remain limited to the true urban search and rescue missions for which it originally intended.
With shrinking budgets and the diminishment of federally funded PPE, technical rescue gear will remain a specialized product instead of a lower tier of protection for the fire service.
In memoriam — As we submit this article on Sept. 11, 2012, we encourage everyone to remember the sacrifices of those firefighters, first responders and others who lost their lives 11 years ago and the solidarity that it created for our nation.