Trending Topics

Melting facepieces, burnt hands and striking a balance in PPE

The structural ensemble is one huge balancing act with many trade-offs

The interoperability of the various elements of the structural ensemble and how the various elements perform together is an issue within the fire service.

It seems firefighters have moved toward more thermally protective structural garments. I spoke with a firefighter and he was enthusiastically explaining that his new turnouts were superior to what he was previously wearing.

When I inquired as to why, the firefighter told me that the new turnouts were superior because he could not feel the heat of the fire. I thought to myself, “But what about the hands and ears?”

Firefighters are suffering burns to the hands and knees, and in some cases melting facepieces. As a result, the related NFPA technical committees are trying to address the issues.

The structural ensemble is one huge balancing act with many trade-offs and maybe they cannot be accomplished at the same time. Thermal protection versus dexterity in gloves and increased thermal protections in garments, giving the firefighter the ability to go deeper, are two current examples.

This increased thermal protection has led to SCBA facepieces being compromised from thermal exposure. The big questions are how high we raise the thermal protection bar – and what the cost of that is – and what the balance should be between thermal protection and everything else.

I would argue that the balance is the ability of the entire structural ensemble to keep the user protected during the routine fire related operations. Please note that I did not say routine fireground operations.

I believe that the ensemble should protect the wearer during routine fireground operations, and live fire training, as well as limited protection for that single catastrophic event.

Let’s take a look at some of the pieces and the trade-off issues involved.

The SCBA facepiece
NFPA 1981 is developing and proposing new performance requirements for the SCBA facepiece. These changes are based in part on line-of-duty death conclusions stating that the downed firefighter inhaled toxic gases while still alive.

In addition, there have been many cases of SCBA facepiece crazing and lens failure due to the firefighter wiping a glove across a softened lens.

Firefighters routinely have their vision obscured while wearing an SCBA facepiece and in most instances it is moisture or fireground muck.

However, in the instance that it not, it is a serious situation. Most of these instances that I am familiar with have occurred during live fire training exercises, and a facepiece failure during routine or even during emergency situations is rare.

The trade-off here is life or death. The balance here is simple – the SCBA facepiece should outlast the rest of the ensemble.

Fire hoods
The hood certainly should be looked at, but I rarely hear of issues with burned ears unless the firefighter is not wearing a shroud. I believe that if a firefighter is aware of his situation, they can use the hood (and visual interpretation) as a predictor of thermal saturation long before injury or element failure.

Fire gloves
Much has been written about the trade-off between thermal protection and dexterity. I continue to get emails about the need for glove dexterity and just as many saying thermal protection is the key and that firefighters will adapt.

I have also received a few emails asking if there can be a separate standard for firefighters that use saws and go to the roof. With the moves to increase dexterity, the gap between the levels of protection of gloves and the rest of the ensemble have narrowed.

There was a time when the gloves enjoyed a nearly 2 to 1 safety margin to the garment, but that has changed and it is now closer to 1 to 1.

The trade-off here is, in my opinion, more serious than the SCBA facepiece issue. While a SCBA facepiece failure results in death, it is rare during routine fireground operations.

However, the increased protection offered by modern turnouts allows firefighters to crawl in hot water, over molten carpet, across hot concrete, or be exposed to high radiant heat during routine fireground operations without thinking about getting hurt.

But these situations often result in serious injury to the hands. Many times these injuries, during routine fireground operations, leave the hands badly damaged, destroying the quality of life of the firefighter. This is not because the gloves were bad (and the same applies to SCBA), but because other parts of the ensemble were more protective.

Knees are certainly another area of concern. Firefighters continue to suffer knee burns. This is another very complex issue.

Some fire departments that use very simple, almost unpadded, knee systems suffer no knee burns and departments that use complex thick systems suffer burns and nobody seems to be able to adequately explain it.

Firefighters routinely kneel on hot surfaces and hot water, but should more protection be afforded to the knees? Knees are not a good indicator of the thermal environment because they are mostly on the floor and are compressed causing faster thermal transmission. The floor has been heated by prolonged and constant radiant heat from above.

Firefighters are taught alternate travel methods than crawling, but most are not practical for more than a few feet.

I would argue that the simplest way to address this issue would be to require that garments be less thermally protective. That would reduce the thermal exposure to the facepiece lens and the hands because firefighters would feel the heat sooner.

Firefighters need to feel the heat and need to be trained what to do when they feel it, before problems with the facepiece or gloves occur.

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