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Beyond turnouts: Your PPE checklist to keep you safe and comfortable

Detailing your glove, boots, eye protection and undergarment options, plus what to wear around water

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FDNY firefighters battle a multi alarm fire in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn Wednesday, April 3, 2019, in New York.

AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

When you hear the acronym PPE, your first thought is likely your structural PPE. For many firefighters, their structural PPE is the only protective ensemble that they have, so it must serve as a one-size-fits-all option for their personal protection.

But your job is not a one-size-fits-all job, is it? The fire service is one of just a few vocations (or in the case of volunteer firefighters, avocations) that has such a diverse need for PPE. For example, you can be called upon to deliver any of the following services, just to list a few:

  • Extinguish a fire in a multi-level structure.
  • Extricate a severely injured patient from a motor vehicle crash.
  • Combat a wildland-urban interface (WUI) fire threatening homes in your area.
  • Conduct a confined rescue of a contractor who suffered a medical emergency while working in a utility tunnel.

Each of those tactical operations have their own set of risks for firefighters – risks that can be minimized using the appropriate type of PPE.

The selection of PPE – beyond your structural PPE – that’s available to you and your firefighting sisters and brothers is broad in scope and application. Let’s review some of those options.

Firefighter gloves

Whatever the job you’re called upon to perform, there’s one consistent PPE requirement – that you have proper protection for your hands. Today, you have more options than ever before to have gloves that provide a high level of protection and functionality.

The requirements for gloves are included in all the NFPA standards that address firefighter protective equipment, clothing and ensembles for structural firefighting, wildland or WUI firefighting, and technical rescue.

When you’re in the market for structural firefighting gloves, in particular, it’s important to consider fit and thermal protection. As I wrote on this topic in 2018, “Some firefighters select gloves that fit too tight in the mistaken belief that a tighter glove equates to greater dexterity. This compresses the thermal barrier and results in less trapped air, less insulation from heat and greater potential for heat to be transmitted to the hand.”

And for non-structural firefighting gloves, the variety of specialization and functionality has increased dramatically in recent years, with glove options that give you increased protection (from cuts and abrasions) and dexterity to operate tools. Check out “The expanding world of gloves for firefighters and their jobs” to see a good cross-section of what’s available in both structural firefighting and non-structural firefighting gloves.

Firefighter structural firefighting boots

Perhaps you’ve heard this one before, “If your dogs are barking, nothing feels good.” If you’ve spent a couple hours walking and working in rubber turnout boots that don’t fit well, you can probably attest to that.

The first firefighting boots were typically made from leather. Rubber fire boots first appeared in the U.S. in the 1930s. Fortunately, the early-2000s saw a reappearance of leather structural firefighting boots that took fit, reduced weight and increased comfort to a new level for firefighters.

Many boot manufacturers have addressed what firefighters didn’t like in the first generation of those earlier leather structural firefighting boots (e.g., break-in time, fit around the ankle, and a more durable waterproof lining) to create boots that firefighters actually want to wear. There is lots of information on firefighter footwear these days, with several boot options to choose from.

Check out “How to choose the right firefighting boot for the job” for tips on how to get the best fit for your money.

Firefighter PPE for working around water

A typical high-risk/low-frequency emergency incident for many fire departments has their firefighters working in or around areas with floodwaters. You must wear a Class III or V personal flotation device (PFD) in that work environment, as recreational PFDs do not provide an acceptable level of buoyancy for emergency responders working around floodwaters, especially moving water.

And don’t forget head protection for water rescue incidents. Your structural firefighting helmet is just that – a structural firefighting helmet. Water rescue helmets are not only a lighter option, they provide more impact protection, especially from side impacts. And they’re designed to let the water out of the helmet in the event you become submerged in water.

[Read next: It’s water rescue season: Are you prepared?]

Turnout gear undergarments

Performance underwear made from synthetic fibers is designed to wick moisture away from the skin and keep the wearer cooler. So it’s no wonder that many firefighters would look to these new undergarments to help them to be more comfortable while on the job.

The paper “Tests of Undergarments Exposed to Fire,” sponsored the U.S. Forest Service, shares that firefighters wearing synthetic undergarments may be more likely to suffer burn injuries because the synthetic materials might melt and stick to their skin. On the flipside, undergarments constructed using 100% cotton or 100% wool fibers did not ignite, melt or char during testing.

The manufacturers that produce fire-resistant undergarments predominantly use one or more of the following aramid fibers (a class of heat-resistant and strong synthetic fibers) to produce their products:

  • Oxidized polyacrylonitrile
  • Meta-Aramid (Nomex)
  • Modacrylic (a manufactured fiber in which the fiber-forming substance is composed of less than 85% but at least 35% by weight of acrylonitrile units)
  • Para-Aramid (Kevlar)
  • Polybenzimidazole (PBI)

Each of these base components is blended with additional strengthening fibers, like Spandex or nylon, to provide a more comfortable fit and longer garment life.

Manufacturers, in an effort to use more eco-sensitive materials, are also using lyocell, a semi-synthetic fabric that is commonly used as a substitute for cotton or silk. Lyocell is a form of rayon, and it is composed primarily of cellulose derived from wood. Lyocell fiber (sold under trade names like Lenzing and Tencel) helps to provide heat- and flame-resistance in different fabric blends.

Firefighter eye protection

NFPA 1971: Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting requires that fire helmets come with either a protective face shield or goggles. And NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program provides guidance and direction for firefighter eye protection that stipulates that a firefighter operating on a fireground without a SCBA facepiece in place must use primary eye protection.

The standard then goes on to define primary eye protection as protection that meets the spectacle or goggle requirements of ANSI/ISEA Z87.1: American National Standard for Occupational and Educational Eye and Face Protection. The requirements of ANSI Z87.1 stipulate that only spectacles (safety glasses) and goggles are considered full eye protection; face shields are not.

As any firefighter will tell you, eye-protection equipment is only going to be used consistently if it’s easy to use, it meets their needs, and they can see through it.

Check out “How to buy protective fire eyewear” to learn more about finding the right protective eyewear that make it easier to wear your eye protection before you need it.

Hearing protection

One in five Americans experience hearing loss, and 80% do nothing about it, typically because hearing loss occurs gradually. And while most people will get an eye exam on a regular basis, very few get regularly scheduled hearing tests.

Take action to protect your hearing with hearing protection equipment. PPE like noise-reducing earplugs, ear canal caps and earmuffs can reduce noise exposure and with it your risk for hearing loss. And just as with eye protection, you must use it!

Unique risks require solid PPE

You and your fire department deliver a wide variety of services to the community you serve, and while each of those types of service delivery come with common risks, certain situation have their own unique risks. And you need to have the right PPE if you’re going to mitigate those unique risks.

So, what does your inventory of available PPE look like?

Note: The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsor.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.