The fire service’s weekly safety column
By: Ray McCormack
Tactical Safety examines the process of firefighting to see if there is a better and safer way to operate.
Was Old-School Unsafe or Just Poorly Dressed?
When we think of old school firefighting, the time line will be different depending upon how long you’ve been around; and your perception of old in general. A common theme is the personal protective ensemble (PPE) and how it dates our past. The majority of departments use bunker gear for structural firefighting. Without getting into a debate over gear and its collective protection properties, a question to ask is: which came first, being unsafe or poorly protected?
The protection level of modern bunker gear is more inclusive and constant, and it has lowered the number of burn injuries and their severity; and that’s a good thing.
It is interesting to note that firefighters who only know one level of protection (bunker gear) would probably be aghast at observing those who may still wear (old-school) gear. The resistance would most likely be based on the fear of less protection and increased opportunity for injury. In some instances, this would be correct, but not always. The idea that gear has “saved the firefighter” is not shared by all, especially those who came before ‘bunkers.’
A firefighter who is fully geared-up using modern PPE will suffer less injury and be much better protected from sudden event changes than an old-school firefighter would be in the same spot. The difference in injury is not the hazard alone; it is the depth of firefighter involvement.
Does modern gear warn us? Does it take too long to warn us? All of that is subject to debate. What old-school firefighters always knew was when it was getting too hot. Did they get into trouble also? Yes, they did, and we do too. The question is: does better gear make you unsafe? Of course it doesn’t, lack of knowledge does that.
When you look at the photos of Michael Dick taken in the early eighties, you see moments in time that showcase firefighters doing what firefighters do, just with less protective equipment. Certain injuries would be worse because it occurred to an under-protected part of the body. The advent of a more encompassing protective envelope blocks routine injuries and some would argue invites exposure to sudden events.
We must wear our gear fully, and be aware that it is only temporary protection for sudden events. Sudden events don’t care about your protection level. Only you can lower your injury risk by gaining knowledge, and feeling your limitations like those in the (old-school) so that you remain tactically safe.
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