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PPE basics: What’s your excuse for not wearing it?

Are we lazy, complacent, or maybe just stupid when it comes to wearing our personal protective equipment at all times?

Editor’s Note: The National Volunteer Fire Council’s National Firefighter Health Week runs August 16-20. It’s an annual week-long initiative held each August to educate the fire and emergency services community and the public about a variety of health and wellness issues that affect first responders. Tuesday’s topic of focus is personal protective equipment. In addition to Chief Adam K. Thiel’s take below, be sure to check out PPE tips from the NVFC here as well as its special Health Week page.

By Chief Adam K. Thiel
FireRescue1 Editorial Advisor

OK ... I’ll admit it: I haven’t always used my issued personal protective equipment when or how I should. Even worse, I don’t have any excuses for those occasions when I didn’t properly or completely wear my PPE. Do you?

I’m very thankful that I received excellent training when I started in the fire and emergency services almost 20 years ago, as a volunteer firefighter-rescuer in Montgomery County, Maryland.

One thing our instructors always emphasized was the importance of using the appropriate PPE for every situation, emergency or non-emergency.

Forget your helmet (with fastened chinstrap) near the burn building? Ten push-ups. SCBA waist straps dangling unbuckled? Ten push-ups. No gloves while packing hose? Ten push-ups. We quickly learned our lesson and always wore the correct PPE during recruit training.

But several times after recruit school I forgot that important lesson — and suffered for it. Sitting in a car with bunker pants and a T-shirt (my turnout coat was sitting unused on the engine’s doghouse) while shattered glass fell down my back during an extrication; lesson (re)learned.

Forgetting to completely fasten the collar of my turnout coat and getting steam burns down my neck; lesson (re)learned.

Not wearing my chinstrap and watching my helmet fall from the top of the hosebed; lesson (re)learned.

Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to realize that wearing all my PPE, all the time, was an absolute requirement if I wanted to have a safe, healthy, and happy life beyond the fire department.

Why do we sometimes forget this important fact? Is it because we’re in such a hurry to save lives that we can’t spare a minute to properly don all our gear? Maybe it doesn’t look cool to wear a chinstrap? Are the SCBA waist straps really that hard to fasten? Is it too difficult to pull the gloves out of your pocket?

Perhaps that hearing protection makes it hard to hear the radio while running the chainsaw for its daily check? Are we lazy? Complacent? Or maybe just stupid?

That’s right ... I said it. I was stupid when I didn’t wear my turnout coat, fasten my collar, or tighten my chinstrap. I knew better and had everything I needed to do it right, but I didn’t. Stupid is the only explanation left.

Don’t be stupid, don’t make excuses, and use your PPE the right way, every day!

Adam K. Thiel is the fire commissioner and director of the Office of Emergency Management in the city of Philadelphia. Thiel previously served as a fire chief in the National Capital Region and as a state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Thiel’s operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tropical Storm Gaston and Hurricane Isabel.

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