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After 50 years, the best PPE is still between our ears!

Reflecting on the evolution of gear through my career, the impact of an early burn, and how one leader gave me a better option


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Fireball gloves, a metal helmet, a rubber coat and three-quarter rubber boots from the spare gear rack was my PPE in 1970 at the Kentland Volunteer Fire Department Company 33 in Landover, Maryland.

At my first fire in Kentland, the only danger I was exposed to was riding on the tailboard by myself for the first time while the engine raced down the street. I was the layout man. After that first incident, I quickly realized that there was a lot to learn to be an effective, efficient and safe firefighter.

Not long after, I was at my first live-fire training on a house fire, still using spare gear. I was on the nozzle for the first time. A senior firefighter took me into the basement fire from an outside entrance. I was a SCUBA diver so the mask was not a new experience. But the thick black smoke, zero visibility and heat created a new environment for me.

About halfway into the basement, my metal helmet fell off. I told my partner. We stopped, felt around and found my helmet. When I put it back on my head, the left side of the earflaps went up into the helmet, and the metal was so hot that it burned my ear. I yelled, “My ear got burned!” or something to that effect. “OK, let’s back out,” my partner directed – and we did. Remember, we were in zero viability, this was my first time in a fire, I was burned, we did not know the extent of the injury, and it was a training fire. It was the correct decision. Lesson learned #1: Put the chinstrap down to help keep my helmet on.

In January 1972, I became a career firefighter in the District of Columbia Fire Department. Again, I was issued fireball gloves, a metal helmet, three-quarter rubber boots, a Nomex coat and Nomex bunker pants for night work.

About 2 weeks on the job, I caught my first working fire. I was detailed to Engine 1 on the night shift. We were turned out for a large house fire as second due. I was the layout man. After completing the layout supply line with the pumper, in this case as second due, we took the rear (Side Charlie) down an alley, so I made a split lay with the pumper. I went back to the wagon for a 30-minute SCBA and brought in another for the officer. I followed the attack line in and relieved the nozzleman, who had on the 15-minute sling-pack SCBA. At this particular fire, the captain did not take the SCBA in with him, and he did not take the one I brought him. And the nozzleman did not want to be relieved.

We extinguished the fire in the back of the house, moved up the back stairs and extinguished the second floor. The fire was out but still smoldering, the nozzleman was out of air and had taken his facepiece off. The captain never had a mask on.

When we got back to the first floor, the captain told me, “You can take your mask off now.” I did.

We took a break outside then came back in to help with overhaul.

After about 15 minutes, the captain came to me and said, “Clark, what the f&^% did you do? The battalion chief wants to see you.”

My reply, as the panic set in, “Nothing, cap, I was with you all the time.”

I found Battalion Chief 2 outside.

“Where did you get the metal helmet?” he asked. “I was issued it at the property section, chief,” I replied.

“When you get off tomorrow morning, go to the property section and tell them I said to give you one of the new helmets.”

“Yes, sir.”

The next day I was issued a used plastic helmet. It fit better and the ear flaps covered more area.

Getting my ears burned early in my career was a significant and emotional event. It shaped my cognitive, affective, and psychomotor knowledge, skills and abilities about PPE.

A year later, at the 1973 FDIC, I saw a Nomex hood for the first time – and I bought one. My brother firefighters made fun of me until some of the squad guys asked where I got it from and ordered their own.

Looking back and reality checks

At my first fire at Kentland, I was not properly trained for the job to which I was assigned. At my first DCFD fire, I was trained, used the PPE I was given, but the captain was not a good role model and increased our risk by not using the PPE that was available to him and instructing me to take off my mask. The battalion chief realized I was not given the best available helmet and fixed the problem, but he probably did not say anything to the captain about his lack of SCBA use.

Fast-forward 50 years and our PPE is 100% better designed, made, trained with, cleaned and replaced as needed. However, knowledge about our PPE is still the most important part of its usefulness, whether you are the rookie, senior member, company officer, battalion chief or fire chief. From 1970 to 2021, we, the members of the fire service, have always had to decide to use the PPE available to us, in the correct way, at the proper time and place.

I remember a story that Chief Alan Brunacini shared about talking to injured firefighters when he visited them in the hospital. The chief explained that when the firefighters or officers were telling him what happened, the most common statement started with, “I didn’t think ….”

Chief Brunacini would agree that our most important piece of PPE is between our ears!

Dr. Burton A. Clark, EFO, has been in the fire service for 49 years. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Fire Service Psychology Association and the Board of Governors for the John M. Moschella Fire Service Research Grant Trust. Dr. Clark is a technical expert reviewer for the NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention program and a dissertation advisor at various universities. He is the author of “I Can’t Save You And I Don’t Want To Die Trying: American Fire Culture.”