A head-to-toe PPE fitting: How to make sure every item is working to protect you

Follow NFPA standards and check the overlap of PPE ensemble interfaces to ensure you are protected from contamination and thermal injury


In your structural firefighting protective ensemble, a head-to-toe fitting means that all the individual protective elements – including your helmet, hood, mask, gloves, coat, pants and boots – must fit securely and overlap where necessary to effectively reduce your risk of  injury or death.

Due to increasing awareness about the risk posed by exposure to smoke, soot and dangerous chemicals and compounds , we now know it’s critical for your safety and well-being that interface areas – the neck, torso, wrists and ankles – are adequately protected. This article covers proper donning and PPE interfaces designed to protect firefighters.

Fire departments should ensure that the PPE their personnel wear is maintained in accordance with  the requirements of NFPA 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, and is able to provide proper interface between elements of the structural firefighting ensemble.

Due to increasing awareness about the risk posed by exposure to smoke, soot and dangerous chemicals and compounds from combustion, we now know it’s critical for your safety and well-being that these interface areas – the neck, torso, wrists and ankles – are adequately protected. (Photo/USAF)
Due to increasing awareness about the risk posed by exposure to smoke, soot and dangerous chemicals and compounds from combustion, we now know it’s critical for your safety and well-being that these interface areas – the neck, torso, wrists and ankles – are adequately protected. (Photo/USAF)
PPE interfaces are those areas where an individual element of the protective ensemble must connect or overlap with another individual element to provide the necessary protection.
PPE interfaces are those areas where an individual element of the protective ensemble must connect or overlap with another individual element to provide the necessary protection.

When other specialty equipment is being used in conjunction with your PPE (e.g., SCBA, a thermal imaging camera or portable radio), that equipment cannot interfere with the proper function and interface of the protective ensemble or ensemble elements.

Helmet-hood-SCBA face piece interface

Nowhere else in the firefighting protective ensemble are more than two elements required to protect an area like the triad charged with protecting the firefighter from the neck up. Protective firefighting hoods serve to join the helmet, SCBA face piece and coat collar area of the ensemble.

For the best possible protection for the head and neck, it is critical for the firefighter to have:

  • A helmet that fits properly while wearing their SCBA face piece
  • A hood with front and back bibs of sufficient length to stay under the coat at all times
  • A hood with the proper degree of elasticity to create closure around the SCBA face piece

It is also critical that the  helmet’s ear covers be worn in the down position and that the coat’s collar is worn in the up position and is securely fastened.

Coat to pants interface

NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program contains objective criteria for evaluating interface effectiveness for firefighting protective ensembles. The requirement for selecting structural firefighting protective coat and trousers specifies at least a two-inch overlap of all layers. The minimum overlap is determined by measuring the garments on the wearer, without SCBA, in two different positions:

  1. Position A. Standing, hands together reaching overhead as high as possible
  2. Position B. Standing, hands together reaching overhead, with body bent forward at a 90-degree angle, to the side (either left or right) and to the back

The overlap of the bottom of the coat over the waist of the pants must be at least two inches for all positions. These orientations are used to ensure there is no gaping of the total protection when the coat and pants are worn together.

Coat to gloves interface

If a fire department chooses to provide protective coats with protective resilient wristlets secured through a thumb opening, then the department should provide gauntlet style gloves for use with firefighting protective coats.

If, however, a department chooses protective coats without the attached wristlets, then that department must provide wristlet-type gloves or other interface components for use with the chosen protective coats. The wristlets on such gloves must extend two-inches above the crease of the wrist (where the hand joins the arm).

Pants to footwear interface

The physiological waist is at the navel, which is not necessarily where a firefighter might wear jeans or station uniform pants. Most bunker pants are designed to be worn at the physiological waist and with the crotch of the pants near the body.  It is important that the overlap measurement be determined with the firefighter wearing his pants in the location he would expect to work in, in order to help prevent gaping between the coat and pants during firefighting movements.

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