By Henry Costo
Published Sunday, April 1, 2012
| From the April 2012 Issue of FireRescue
Although it may not be readily apparent—nor a matter of much concern—to most firefighters, the fact is that the research, development, testing, certification and production processes for all elements of firefighting PPE ensembles are complex and highly technological at every stage of their production chains. Furthermore, the selection of jurisdictionally appropriate PPE ranks among the most critical decisions that a department will make in its efforts to enhance and ensure the safety of its responders.
Given the profoundly sophisticated nature of our turnout gear and the critical role it plays in protecting firefighters, it’s essential that a department’s selection and specification processes be deliberate, considered and comprehensive. The implementation of a continuous, thoughtful and well-managed PPE selection program will facilitate, if not ensure, PPE choices that are most suitable and appropriate for the jurisdiction and its firefighters.
There are many different ways to manage a PPE selection and specification program and each of them comes with a set of debatable pros and cons pertaining to efficacy and appropriateness for a given organization. But no matter which mechanism a department employs to manage the process—be it a PPE selection committee, project management team, safety officer or other method—there can be no debate as to what must be the first and most important step in the process: the risk assessment.
Unfortunately, this essential, fundamental and most crucial step is often overlooked and/or insufficiently addressed when departments choose elements of their PPE ensemble.
Elements of a Risk Assessment
To emphasize the paramount importance of conducting a comprehensive risk assessment, NFPA 1851: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting (2008 edition), clearly and explicitly states: “Prior to starting the selection process of structural fire fighting ensembles and ensemble elements and proximity fire fighting ensembles and ensemble elements, the organization SHALL perform a risk assessment.”
The risk assessment should include, but must not be limited to, the many hazards that can be encountered by firefighters in the performance of their duties and should take into consideration the following:
Types of Duties Performed
Remember that firefighters no longer simply “fight fires.” Emergency service delivery expectations have evolved to the point where fire departments are now required to provide an expanding and comprehensive array of emergency services to their customers. The types of duties performed by firefighters have, of course, expanded along with the widening scope of the services we provide.
It’s important, therefore, to consider such duties as highway responses (particularly at night), energized equipment operations, storm-related operations, elevator operations, technical rescue operations, vehicle extrication, hazmat mitigation, ARFF requirements, EMS/first responder calls, etc., when conducting the risk assessment and eventually when considering and making PPE choices.
Frequency of PPE Use
Obviously the jurisdiction’s call volume and work loads are supremely relevant considerations here, but it’s essential to also consider additional pertinent aspects such as the number of turnout sets and elements assigned to each firefighter, the existence and/or effectiveness of the department’s cleaning and repair program, the presence of a cache of “catastrophic reserve” gear to be deployed in the case of large-scale PPE contamination, the frequency and intensity of hands-on training, the jurisdiction’s PPE retirement protocols, and the department’s decontamination procedures and capabilities, including those for PPE contaminated by bodily fluids.
The collection, maintenance and analysis of a jurisdiction’s line-of-duty injury and near-miss data perform an invaluable role in the ability of that organization to conduct an informed risk assessment. Furthermore, the thorough investigation of specific, unique and/or extraordinary types of line-of-duty injuries and near-misses will profoundly supplement the information, evidence and data collected and gleaned through the organization’s routine injury reporting mechanism(s).
Remember, however, that a department must not limit its historical analysis to strictly injury-related data. For example, records and data related to an organization’s PPE cleaning and repair experience—including costs, frequency, durability, gear life cycles (retirement), exposures, etc.—must be collected and evaluated as part of the PPE risk assessment process. Another extremely beneficial practice is to communicate with fire departments similar to your own regarding their relevant data and experiences.
The continuous and detailed analysis of this historical information enables a jurisdiction to discern injury patterns, recognize injury trends, identify specific risks and hazards, and craft appropriate remedial measures and interventions. With regard to PPE, these preventative efforts will generally require a blended approach including engineering/design changes, new or modified education/training initiatives, and enhanced enforcement/compliance measures.
Put simply: Before you initiate PPE changes or modifications, you need to consider what blend of modifications/changes, education and compliance will produce the desired effect. Thorough documentation of department experiences facilitates this determination.
It should be obvious that an honest, introspective and in-depth consideration of a department’s predominant fire attack philosophy is fundamental to conducting a valid risk assessment and hazard identification process. The types of risks and hazards to which an organization’s firefighters will be exposed will largely be a function of that department’s predominantly offensive or defensive strategic orientation. The prevailing fundamental firefighting strategy established will, in turn, be greatly influenced by a department’s response times, patterns and distances (i.e., the times routinely experienced in the initial delivery of an effective firefighting or mitigating force to a fire or other type of emergency).
Additional factors impacting the strategic orientation include the following:
- Department’s capacity (or lack thereof) to deliver sufficient additional staffing, resources and equipment to an expanding emergency operation.
- Sufficiency of an organization’s rest and rehabilitation protocols and capabilities.
- Department’s demographic characteristics, such as average, mean and age extremes; training levels; experience; and tenure.
- Existence of a viable health and fitness program.
- Capacity to render immediate, effective and dedicated emergency medical care to firefighters operating at an incident.
- Community type (e.g., urban, rural, industrial, mercantile, bedroom).
- Prevalent structure types, building construction, density, building heights, etc.
- Water and extinguishing agent supply and accessibility.
- Adequacy of area roads and highways.
Geographic Location & Climate
No PPE risk assessment would be complete without adequate consideration of a jurisdiction’s prevailing climate and weather conditions, as well as the potential for extremes of temperature, humidity, wind, rain, storms, flooding, snow accumulations, ice, etc. Keep in mind that many jurisdictions experience significant weather variations even within their own boundaries—such as the beaches vs. inland areas of San Diego and Los Angeles counties. Additional geographic considerations include features of terrain and topography, bodies of water, altitude, and wildland/urban interfaces.
Likelihood of Response to CBRN Incidents
Given that CBRN incidents are relatively infrequent, the historic record and related data will obviously be less robust. This aspect of risk to firefighters is arguably the most difficult to assess and predict. Although the tendency is to consider possible CBRN exposures resulting from malicious acts of terrorism, there’s a far greater likelihood of such exposures resulting from accidental events or releases. Ultimately, it is incumbent upon fire department leaders to calculate the risk of, and plan for, both types of CBRN scenarios. To a degree, then, the relative concentration of CBRN-related facilities and/or relevant transportation infrastructure within a given community should be used as an indicator of the relative potential for CBRN response and exposure.
Keep in mind that the current editions of NFPA 1851 and NFPA 1971: Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting include provisions for “fire fighting protective ensembles with optional CBRN terrorism agent protection.” The decision to provide this enhanced level of protection is not an easy or simple one.
The efficacy of the inherent protections provided by CBRN-option turnouts is primarily a function of an enhanced moisture barrier coupled with the “sealing” of all element interfaces anytime and every time the ensemble is deployed. The concern is that the closing of these interfaces may place additional physical stress on firefighters during the day-to-day performance of routine operations.
Furthermore, to put it bluntly, this enhanced level of protection comes at a substantial additional cost, which must be a significant consideration in the risk-benefit deliberative process, particularly within the context of our current economic and fiscal environment. Of course, that is not to suggest that one can put a price on responder safety, but the reality is that the degree of risk, possible benefits and detriments, and related costs are all factors in the risk assessment equation.
PPE Criteria Affected by the Risk Assessment
Ultimately, the risk assessment will provide the background against which the organization’s PPE decisions will be made. Establishing the necessary context will facilitate, if not ensure, the likelihood of informed and prudent decisions regarding the department’s PPE requirements and preferences regarding fundamental PPE selection and specification criteria, including:
- Thermal protective performance (TPP)
- Total heat loss (THL)
- Conductive and compressive heat resistance (CCHR)
- Ergonomic comfort
- Customer service
- Component compatibility
- Ability to modify
- Functional accessories
- Flame, heat and abrasion resistance
- Water absorption
- Maintenance requirements
- Visibility/conspicuity of reflective trim
A Dynamic Process
A comprehensive risk assessment conducted within the context of the many and multi-faceted considerations delineated above will identify a multitude of general hazards that firefighters are likely to be exposed to during the performance of their duties (e.g., thermal, respiratory, physical, ergonomic, environmental, chemical, biological, radiological, electrical).
It’s very important to remember that a true measure of risk, and therefore a valid risk assessment, must not only identify the potential hazards, but must also evaluate the relative potential—the likelihood of exposure—as well as the potential severity—the consequences of the exposure.
Given its fundamental and critical nature, it’s essential that the risk assessment process be planned, considered, thoughtful, comprehensive, researched, deliberate, documented, data-guided and dynamic. Remember: A jurisdiction’s risk assessment is not a finite, one-time process. An organization’s risks and related PPE needs are constantly evolving, and accordingly, the department’s risk assessment process must be a continuous one in order to ensure that its PPE evolves in step with the organization’s ever-changing requirements.
As firefighters, we are well aware of the need to maintain situational awareness in our operating environment. It’s equally important to maintain situational awareness regarding the growing and changing risks and hazards that confront us on a daily basis. An ongoing risk assessment approach maintains the organization’s situational awareness with regard to those perils and establishes a real-time appreciation of the organization’s PPE needs.
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