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Why ‘Level A all the way’ isn’t the best way when it comes to PPE

Learn how having the right gear for the job can make your job safer and easier – in particular, reducing the risk of heat stress


Sponsored by TenCate Protective Fabrics

By Robert Avsec for FireRescue1 BrandFocus

For those who were part of the entry of fire departments into the world of hazardous materials response, these words should bring back memories: Level A all the way.

Training, rescue and extrication don’t pose the same risks as a structure fire. Why subject firefighters to the heat stress and lack of mobility of Level A structural PPE when the mission calls for a different approach?
Training, rescue and extrication don’t pose the same risks as a structure fire. Why subject firefighters to the heat stress and lack of mobility of Level A structural PPE when the mission calls for a different approach? (Getty)

In the late 1970s, the position of many early hazmat response teams was to use Level A protection (fully encapsulated suits with the SCBA) for every response, regardless of the chemical they encountered.

As anyone who’s ever trained or worked in a Level A protective suit can attest, the time spent in a suit is like working in a sauna. The Level A suit provided little or no breathability, and any heat or vapor that built up while working was trapped in the suit with the wearer. Naturally, this presents a hazard for heat stress. One of my early hazmat instructors did everything he could to make sure we understood that hazard by repeatedly saying, “When working in a Level A suit, you’re working in a life-threatening environment.”

We’re at a similar phase of dealing with the same conditions with our structural firefighting protective ensemble. The three-layer structural firefighting ensemble has been designed and engineered to protect a firefighter from the thermal hazards of structural firefighting. And it does that very well, including protecting a firefighter from the most extreme thermal insult: a flashover event.

Including all that thermal protection has created a conundrum for PPE manufacturers: How do we protect the firefighter inside the garment from becoming a victim of their own body heat? Yes, NFPA 1971: Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting has a requirement for total heat loss, but any firefighter will tell you that, depending upon the ambient temperature, humidity and the amount of work being done, when working in the structural ensemble, you can get hot in a hurry.

For most firefighters, the structural ensemble is the only PPE they have, and it’s the gear they wear to every call – regardless of the call type or the on-scene assessment of the hazards present. It’s Level A – the highest level of protection – all the way, for everything.

Follow the Science

In the early 1990s, while attending the Hazardous Materials Operating Site Practices course at the National Fire Academy, my classmates and I heard our instructor, Frank Docimo, say, “Level A all the way ain’t the way!” During that two-week class he continued to pound into our heads that, when making decisions about PPE for hazmat operations, we must follow the science. He told us that PPE decisions must be made based on the physical properties of the chemical involved.

That was the beginning, for many fire departments, of outfitting personnel with the correct level of PPE based on the hazard. Why subject firefighters to all that heat stress and lack of mobility found in a Level A suit when the chemical did not have an airborne (gas or vapor) risk? In response, we began using Level B protection (e.g., PVC rain suits with SCBA) on most calls because that was the right PPE for the job based on the hazard present (splash hazards from liquid products).

Docimo’s admonishment to follow the science is just as applicable today as it was back then. Your structural PPE is specifically designed for one mission: to protect you from the hazards present while engaged in interior structural firefighting. But, as we’re learning more about the effects of heat stress on a firefighter while working in structural PPE, the more we are coming to appreciate that a firefighter wearing structural PPE for anything other than structural firefighting puts them at risk of a heat stress related sudden cardiac event.

Low Frequency, High Risk

For most fire departments, responses to working structure fires where structural PPE is required account for a only small percentage of their total responses. Those same fire departments are responding to a far greater number of calls where their Level A structural PPE protection is working against them instead of for them because of:

  1. Heat buildup within the garment when working at vehicle accidents, conducting extrication operations or combatting wildland urban interface fires. These events put firefighters at risk for a sudden cardiac event, heat stroke or heat exhaustion.
  2. Lack of mobility and good work ergonomics caused primarily by the bulk of the thermal barrier (the layer of your PPE that provides most of the thermal protection when fighting structure fires). This causes the firefighter to work harder, generating more body heat and exacerbating heat buildup.

So, if we accept the fact that Level A protection for firefighters responding to a hazardous materials call was overkill, then we must also accept that wearing structural PPE for all emergency responses is also overkill.

Agility Tactical Fabric from TenCate Protective Fabrics

To help address this problem and provide more PPE options, TenCate Protective Fabrics has developed a new fabric called Agility Tactical that’s lightweight, durable and compliant with NFPA 1951, NFPA 1977 and NFPA 1999.

We spoke with Jeff Sedivec, a retired firefighter (Santa Ana, Calif.) and now end user/dealer market manager for TenCate Protective Fabrics, to learn more about Agility Tactical. He was eager to talk about this newest generation of fabric and its potential to provide firefighters with PPE that’s better suited for those non-structural firefighting jobs.

 According to Sedivec, TenCate Protective Fabrics took its Agility fabric (6.6 ounces per square yard), used in the manufacturing of the outer shell for structural PPE, and made it even lighter to create Agility Tactical (just 5 ounces per square yard).

A Tactical Fabric for Multiple Uses

“Agility Tactical complies with NFPA 1951 and NFPA 1977 for utility-level PPE,” Sedivec said. “And when you add a moisture barrier, it also complies with NFPA 1951 for search and recovery PPE, as well as NFPA 1999, because it gives you a barrier to bloodborne pathogens.”

Agility Tactical fabric from TenCate Protective Fabrics gives PPE manufacturers a lighter weight fabric they can use to make multi-functional PPE for firefighters to wear in a variety of non-structural tasks.
Agility Tactical fabric from TenCate Protective Fabrics gives PPE manufacturers a lighter weight fabric they can use to make multi-functional PPE for firefighters to wear in a variety of non-structural tasks. (TenCate Protective Fabrics)

According to Sedivec, that tri-certification for Agility Tactical now gives PPE manufacturers a lighter weight fabric they can use to make multi-functional PPE for firefighters to wear in a variety of non-structural firefighter tasks, including rescue missions and training.

“Now you can have a garment that’s both multifunctional and highly efficient in those tasks like vehicle extrication, wildland urban interface and delivery of EMS,” Sedivec said. “And because those garments won’t have the bulky thermal protection layer you have in structural PPE, the firefighter wearing it has a lower risk of heat stress and the physical problems that heat stress can bring on.”

With PPE manufactured using Agility Tactical from TenCate Protective Fabrics, firefighters can have the protection they need in non-structural firefighting scenarios with a lower risk of heat stress. That’s certainly an advantage for firefighters as they complete the wide variety of jobs they undertake every day.

For more information, visit TenCate Protective Fabrics.

Read Next: How new, lighter fabrics promote heat loss without sacrificing safety

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