Sunday, June 6, 2010

Tactical Safety: Was Old-School Unsafe or Just Poorly Dressed?

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.

Next Tactical Safety – It’s All About The Break In


  1. Firefighter.M.BoykinJune 6, 2010 at 10:08 PM

    Wearing your full personal protective equipment is very important in the fire service as well as making sure you have all the necessary tools ready for use when on a call. Make sure you take the time to watch the hell and back videos and you will truly see why full personal protective equipment is required..

    Marshall Boykin
    Gulf Breeze Fire Department #33
    Gulf Breeze Florida

  2. Exactly, we should wear all our PPE but act like we have rubber coats and 3/4 boots. I think modern gear has given us a false since of security and we take risky chances because of it. We enter poorly or even unvented structures because our gear allows it. Maybe we should ask ourselves "could I enter this structure wearing 'old school' gear?" If the answer is no, then maybe we should change our tactics.

  3. Good article, Ray. I started with roll up boots, a plastic bucket, and redball gloves - no SCBA. We didn't get into too much trouble because we didn't get in as deep and fought a lot of fires from the outside. Today's gear allows us the luxury of getting in deeper and allows us to get into deeper trouble if you don't pay attention. There is no substitute for knowledge of fire behavior and building construction! Gear does not make us safer unless you have those basics.

  4. This is a very thought provoking article looking at both sides of an important issue. It certainly covers this from a multi-generational standpoint and I look forward to reading the comments put forth by the members whose safety and well being have been impacted by the presence or absence of modern PPE.

  5. I will start with I am not advocating returning to any era of previous PPE ensemble, just bringing out some observations. I have crawled down a hallway in knee length coat and pull-up boots. I remember crawling up into the coat or getting my groin hotter than I cared to, but in retrospect that same ensemble allowed a firefighter to cool down quicker and to move more nimbly than the gear we are utilizing today.

    I believe the biggest problem with modern turnout gear and its effects on our personnel is more closely related to the lack of knowledge and understanding that the bulk of our firefighters posses today of fire behavior. The fire service as a whole has not adequately prepared our firefighters to operate inside a modern structure fire. I will say my knowledge was not gained through class work or fireground experience as much as it was learned participating as an instructor over the years in live fire training. When I was able to watch a fire develope from start to finish over and over I began to make connections and a better understanding of fire development and avenues of travel. I also learned how the fire reacted to various changes in ventilation or suppression. This has served me well over the years when being in a fire where the fire was not visible but having a decent idea of what the fire was doing based on those past observations. It is the live fire training where the best understanding comes from. The problem with the actual fireground is that we always have the end result and it is like taking a test without ever really learning about the subject. The majority of firefighter out there are not going to enough work to even benefit from that. Most fire departments are too focused on EMS, Haz-Mat, Tech Rescue and fire prevention...not that these are bad things, not at all, but they take away from the one arena that is killing us.

    Modern turnouts allow our lesser experienced personnel to go deeper into a fire building than they should because they are totally encapsulated. Modern PPE has higher TPP values than anything in the past and new designs protect the once vulnerable areas of the body that would act as an indicator that things were getting a little too dangerous. The firefighter many times doesn't realize it is to that point until it is too late. Additionally, the new designs create a higher level of stress in the body because they hold in the heat that our bodies are trying to get rid of. We can talk THL but even the best values are not sufficient. There are studies out there...and take stats with a grain of salt...but I have heard values of in excess of 1L of fluid loss and temps inside the gear as high as 130' F. In those conditions imbalances and temps are causing dehydration and heat exhaustion which will progress into heat stroke and this is in a fairly healthy individual. Additionally, mentation will begin to alter and they will start making poor decisions. Stay safe

  6. I worked using both gear. The old school 3/4 boots and turnout coat, and the newer bunker gear. The newer bunker gear is much harder to move around in and in hot humid weather heat exhaustion is a big concern.
    I spent about 15 yearsusing each type of gear. If given the choice, I would have much rather stayed with the older gear.