Wildland PPE: The complete shopping list

Structure and wildland fires are completely different animals, and so too are the PPE needed to keep firefighters safe

One of the primary health threats to the wildland firefighter is heat stress from a high level of physical exertion during hot and dry conditions — and just as often, hot and humid conditions. That's why the protective qualities of structural firefighting PPE make their use less desirable during wildland firefighting operations.

NFPA Standard 1977: Standard on Protective Clothing and Equipment for Wildland Fire Fighting, was developed to address the particular PPE needs of wildland firefighting and firefighting in the wildland urban interface.

Individual departments make their own determination as to what PPE is required when conducting wildland or interface firefighting operations. The following items are those required by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Interagency Fire Center. Departments should strongly consider using this list as the baseline for their wildland firefighting PPE ensemble.

Head and neck
Hardhats provide protection from mechanical hazards like failing trees, limbs and rolling rocks, while enabling greater heat dissipation from the head. Newer models have better integration with protective eye wear such as goggles along with attachable headlamps for use during night operations.

Face and neck shrouds are used almost exclusively in wildland fire, as opposed to balaclava-style hoods used in structural firefighting, for better heat dissipation while still providing a level of thermal protection, particularly from hot embers.

Goggles provide the most effective eye protection from smoke, dust and small flying objects. Although wrap-around safety glasses have gained in popularity, particularly those with tinted lenses for protection from the sun's UV rays. Protective eyewear should meet ANSI standards.

Shirts and trousers are key components of wildland PPE. The early shirts were made from an orange fabric; yellow cotton shirts were introduced in the late 1960s after studies showed yellow to be more visible in dark and smoky environments. Also, there were several instances when orange shirts were mistaken for flames, and aircraft dropped fire retardant on crews on the line.

Today's yellow shirts and green pants are made of aramid fabrics, which are durable and provide good thermal protection. Aramid fabric burns if exposed to flame, but stops burning when the flame is removed. A key protective characteristic of aramid fibers is that instead of melting or burning to ash, they form a char that helps to protect the skin.

Extensive experience on wildfires has shown that loose-fitting clothing is more important in prevention of serious burn injuries than the fire-resistance properties of the material. Clothing that is tight-fitting poses a danger from radiant heat and heat stress, and at the same time reduces the firefighter's ability to perform. Flame-resistant clothing should be designed so that the movement of the wearer induces ventilation, which reduces moisture by a billows effect.

Coveralls and jumpsuits, also made of aramid fibers, are a cost-effective PPE solution for volunteer departments and those career and combination departments that infrequently engage in wildland firefighting operations. This type of PPE can easily be donned over street clothing or station uniforms and provides a better PPE ensemble than structural firefighting PPE.

Hands and feet
Gloves should be specially designed to protect the firefighters' hands against blisters, cuts, scratches and minor burns during routine firefighting. Avoid conventional oil-tanned work gloves that can burn or shrink in intense heat. Individuals entrapped in fire shelters also report that gloves are necessary to hold the hot shelter material to the ground without getting burned.

Wildland fire gloves should be full-grained, chrome-tanned leather. The full-grain requires narrower stitches to hold the seams than does the split-grain; the chrome-tanning provides excellent protection against heat and shrinkage while resisting stretching when wet.

Boots are critical, especially if your response areas include steep, uneven terrain. Wildland fire boots are a minimum of 8 inches high, leather lace-type with skid resistant soles.

Slips and falls account for more than 15 percent of all injuries in wildland fires, so non-slip soles are essential. Steel-toed boots are not recommended for wildland firefighting because of the potential for heat transference on the burned ground.

Fire shelters and packs
Fire Shelters have become the most important component of the wildland firefighter's PPE over the past few years. The pup tent-like shelter is the only piece of equipment that offers lifesaving protection in the event of an entrapment.

The U.S. Forest Service mandated the use of shelters in 1977 and it is estimated that more than 300 firefighters are alive today because they had a fire shelter when they needed one.

A shelter, through its ability to reflect radiant heat, affords a firefighter with life-saving capabilities in two ways: it provides more breathable air; and it gives firefighters a way to protect their lungs and airways from flames and hot gases, the leading killers in an entrapment.

The nature of wildland firefighting requires that the individual have the means to be self-sufficient logistically. Packs are generally used to carry a fire shelter, drinking water, extra pairs of gloves, a flashlight or headlamp, a compass, topographical maps, energy bars, sunscreen and insect repellant, and pretty much anything else the individual cares to tote on the fire line.

Some of the biggest technology advances in wildland firefighting gear have come with packs. The conventional pack requires the entire pack load to be transmitted through the shoulder straps and into the spine. It has no method for pulling the pack against the body to create frictional forces, which dampen pack movement during dynamic loading. 

To control pack rotation, the wearer must either wear the pack higher, which makes the shoulder strap angle more horizontal, but increases the height of the pack center of gravity, or bend forward to move the center of gravity of the pack over the base of the spine. Bending forward significantly adds to load on the spine because of the additional force in the erector spine muscles to counteract the weight of the torso when bent forward.

A better option is the fanny pack because, by tightening the waist belt sufficiently, it transmits pack load the pack is supported by the pelvic iliac bones. This also pulls the pack against the torso creating friction, which resists vertical slipping and controls motion during dynamic loading. 

This pack allows the load to bypass the upper spine. Rotation of the top of the pack is controlled by an anti-rotation strap which pulls the top of the pack into the wearer's back and prevents rotation.

Newer pack designs pack, provide a variable combination of both conventional and fanny pack support systems. More of the load of the pack is transmitted down the spine than the fanny pack, but less than the conventional pack, depending on the distribution of load between the waistband and shoulder straps. 

The shoulder straps control rotation and pull the pack into the torso, while the waistband transfers most of the weight of the pack into the pelvis, bypassing the load on the upper spine.

Understanding what PPE is needed and the role it plays will help keep your firefighters safer during wildland and interface firefights.

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