Safeguarding Firefighters: Navigating the Risks and Benefits of Safety Equipment

Safeguarding Firefighters: Navigating the Risks and Benefits of Safety Equipment

In the high-stakes world of firefighting, where every second counts, the protective equipment worn by firefighters is not just a uniform – it’s a lifeline. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) plays a critical role in ensuring the safety and well-being of each individual; especially firefighters who risk their lives confronting intense heat, smoke, and hazardous environments when battling blazes. From the risks inherent in the line of duty to the tangible benefits of innovative safety equipment, we discuss the importance of PPE and explore the impact it can have in extreme conditions that is often overlooked.

The foundation of firefighter safety

Silent threats: Heat stress, fatigue and cardiovascular strain

Managing heat stress and fatigue

Training and adaptation

Conclusion


The foundation of firefighter safety

Firefighters can face countless dangers during training and on-call, from scorching flames to toxic smoke and chemical exposure; these are high pressure, high risk situations. To mitigate this, there are various companies designing and manufacturing specialised PPE for firefighters, and the PPE market size is estimated to be US$1.81 billion in 2022. The market is segmented into 3 groups by application – indoor firefighting, wild firefighting, and marine firefighting. Indoor firefighting is the largest portion of the PPE market for firefighters with 62% of the market share in 2021. This is because most fires occur indoors and at ground level, making the demand for PPE higher in this segment.. Wild firefighting has approximately 30% market share however, as wildfires continue to become more frequent around the world with increasing global warming this will undoubtedly grow. For now, it remains less with the additional use of helicopters and planes to help extinguish them; nevertheless, PPE remains a critical component for firefighters.

Firefighters PPE is made up of fire suits, boots, gloves, helmets, face masks, an air pack, and an air cylinder. Fire suits are composed of different layers of fabric to provide optimal protection, shielding the wearer from flames whilst also acting as a barrier to prevent their bodies from getting soaked by spraying water and being injured as a result of steam burns and other harmful substances. 

Manufactured from fire-resistant materials, gloves and boots are worn to protect hands and feet from sharp objects, radiant heat and other forms of hazards they can encounter. Similarly, the helmet acts as another safeguard to protect the head from extreme temperatures and falling debris, whilst also preventing the firefighter from getting immersed by water. A face mask, an air pack and an air cylinder make up the final important components so that the firefighter can regulate their air pressure and breathe in clean air while battling the blaze.

It is evident there are numerous components to keep firefighters safe from the external hazards in their line of duty. Although the materials and technology used in  PPE have advanced over the years, it’s crucial to acknowledge the potential risks that firefighters may still face while operating in their PPE.


Silent threats: Heat stress, fatigue and cardiovascular strain

In house fires temperatures can reach up to 815°C / 1500°F at the ceiling, where it’s hottest, and 315°C / 600°F at eye level. Such temperatures highlight the sweltering conditions firefighters face and while PPE is a barrier of protection the very products designed to keep them safe contribute to elevated body temperatures, presenting new challenges of heat stress and fatigue. 


Thermoregulation is how our body maintains its internal core temperature. In order for the body to release the excess heat, it utilises four regulatory mechanisms; radiation, convection, conduction and evaporation. This is essential for keeping it healthy and functioning correctly. Wearing PPE impairs the wearer’s ability to dissipate the various levels of heat, as there is limited water vapour permeability across the clothing layers. If the excess heat is not evaporated, the core body temperature will continue to rise, increasing the risk of heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Additionally, the weight of the PPE over time significantly increases the exertion and workload, exacerbating heat exposure, fatigue and cardiovascular strain. Despite external hazards PPE protects firefighters from, research has found that the physiological strain, specifically cardiovascular strain, associated with firefighting poses the greatest threat to their life and health.


Managing heat stress and fatigue

Studies found that approximately 62% of firefighters reported structural firefighting as the hottest operational activity experienced, followed by wildfires (51%) and rescue operations (38%). The top three responses for which body-parts get the hottest are ranked as ‘the head’ (58%), ‘the whole body’ (54%) and ‘the upper back’ (40%), respectively. Addressing the physical impact of PPE on firefighters and their health involves a delicate balance. Innovations in PPE strive to enhance breathability and heat dissipation without compromising safety. Ventilation systems, moisture-wicking fabrics, and strategic design modifications are being incorporated to optimise thermal comfort. While the advancements in PPE can help reduce the negative implications, a solution that can continuously monitor physiological responses can provide more accurate insights and enable early intervention to prevent the risk of heat-related illnesses and fatigue.

A holistic approach with traditional PPE and modern wearables can provide the most effective solution for managing these silent threats. Bodytrak® is a smart safety solution that provides individualised monitoring where precise data is captured through a wearable device to prevent incidents related to heat stress and fatigue. Using real-time data, geolocation, and immediate alerts, Bodytrak enables early intervention to safeguard crews in training and out in the field. Insights enable firefighters to train at optimal levels and committees to use data to make informed decisions to assess the impact of environmental stress on recovery and existing PPE.

Due to its accuracy and ease of use, Bodytrak was recently used in a laboratory-based validation trial to evaluate the effectiveness of various fire suits in managing heat stress and performance. The study found that the Eagle Synergy suit exhibited 62.0% less sweat absorption compared to two marketing leading suits. With highly breathable material, this minimises the risk of dehydration and maximises cognitive ability. As previously discussed, the weight of a fire suit can increase exertion, hence, increasing health risks. This study found that there was 7.0% less cardiovascular strain as a result of the suit being much lighter and aiding better cooling while continuing to exceed the EN469 2020 requirements. Additionally, participants perceived there was far less exertion and less thermal strain. This is extremely important when battling a fire as it ensures alertness, focus and comfort are maintained over longer periods of time.

A firefighter suit that optimises thermal sensation enhances comfort and allows wearers to remain focused and alert in extreme situations. When people feel uncomfortably hot they are more likely to behave unsafely and their ability to concentrate may be affected, thereby increasing the risk of errors. Wearing the right PPE and using a physiological monitoring solution that provides real-time data ensures firefighters are protected against by tracking their individual responses to the stressors of the challenging environments and triggering immediate alerts to prevent incidents before they happen.

Selecting the most effective PPE is imperative for mitigating the risks of heat stress and fatigue. Wearing equipment that delays the increase in CBT during heat exposure reduces the risk of heat-related illness and dehydration. If the sweat output is not matched by fluid intake it can lead to dehydration that negatively affects cognitive and physical performance. Research shows that body water loss greater than 2% of the body mass impairs cognitive performance such as attention, executive function and motor coordination.

In addition to implementing the most effective and efficient PPE that thermoregulates the body, here are some other activities that firefighters can implement to ensure they can manage and minimise their risks of heat stress and fatigue when wearing PPE in training and in the field.

  • Stay hydrated: The body needs water to function. Every day the body can expect to lose up to two litres of water through sweat. 45 minutes of exposure to extreme heat can lose a further litre for a firefighter. While it’s important to rehydrate, the fluid intake before exposure to extreme conditions can have a big impact. Ensuring you are continuously hydrated even when off duty will ensure the tank is full when required on call.
  • Get physical: Obesity and diabetes are both on the rise in the general population, and firefighters are not immune. Alongside a healthy diet, the ability to maintain strength and endurance will help firefighters meet the physical demands of their job. Improving and maintaining physical fitness will help the body cope with the outputs required.
  • Sleep and recovery: A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine evaluated 7,000 firefighters from 66 fire departments for obstructive sleep disorder, insomnia, restless leg syndrome and shift work disorder. That study found that 37% of the study participants had one or more sleep disorders. The researchers found that compared with sound sleepers, those with a sleep disorder were about twice as likely to have a motor vehicle crash, to nod off while driving and to have cardiovascular disease or diabetes.

Training and adaptation

A comprehensive approach to firefighter health involves not only refining PPE but also prioritising training and adaptation. According to the Fire Brigades Union, firefighters are exposed to extreme heat, with an average of one to two incidents per month. For those involved in training, exposure is far more frequent, increasing the risk of heat-related illness. Instructors face extreme heat ten times a month on average, but this number can be as high as 27. Trainee firefighters can be exposed up to five times each week.

It’s important to simulate real-life scenarios and acclimatise firefighters to the demands of their equipment to enhance their ability to perform under pressure; however, firefighters must be closely monitored during these simulations to avoid the risk of heat-related illnesses. During training and the adaptation sessions, a solution like Bodytrak can be used to closely monitor core body temperature, heart rate, physiological strain, and fatigue. By implementing such a solution, especially during training periods where acclimatisation can be involved, serious injuries can be prevented by alerting the trainee firefighter and instructors when a user is at risk to enable intervention while also assessing the impact of existing PPE.


Conclusion

PPE stands as the frontline defence for firefighters, enabling them to confront life-threatening situations head-on. While the challenges of heat stress and its impact on health are undeniable, ongoing efforts in research, innovation, and training are shaping the future of firefighter PPE. Wearable solutions like Bodytrak provide another level of protection and accurate insights to mitigate risks while providing location positioning data for those who require support. Heat stress and fatigue, brought on by the tools designed to protect those wearing them, no longer need to be a silent threat. New innovations and technology are paving the way to protect the people defending us in training and in the field.

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