PPE is designed to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses resulting from contact with physical, electrical, mechanical, chemical and even radiological hazards. PPE does just this when used and maintained properly.
In the first two case studies, firefighters didn’t use PPE properly and were fortunate they weren’t injured. In the last one, a firefighter did use his PPE, preventing serious injury.
Lead by Example and Listen to Your Intuition
In the first study (Report #10-947), an engine company responding to a gas leak call found a vehicle had been backed into a gas meter. The vehicle was still running about three feet from the meter. The engine company captain was wearing a helmet, bunker coat, bunker pants and boots; the report submitter was wearing SCBA, helmet, hood, coat, bunker pants and boots.
As we walked down the alley, I asked my captain if he wanted me to mask up. He did not respond and instead continued toward the vehicle. I briefly paused as I asked the question and then decided to continue with him. About four feet from the meter, we determined that the line had sheared off below the meter, but above the shutoff valve.
The gas was so strong that my eyes were watering. I used the crescent wrench that I carry in my gear and shut off the gas. The vehicle was then turned off.
I consider this event a near miss because had the gas ignited, it would have burned all unprotected areas including my airway, face, neck and hands. All elements necessary for ignition were present.
The submitter said the department’s SOPs don’t specifically say personnel shall use PPE when trying to shut off a gas leak. However, other conditions in the SOP warranted the use of all of their PPE.
The submitter also notes that he told himself he should use SCBA but ignored his intuition, perhaps feeling justified by his captain’s lack of response.
Use All Available PPE on EMS Calls
This report (Report #11-314) recognizes that one of the most overlooked uses of PPE is protection from bloodborne passages. The captain of a paramedic placed protective eyeglasses on the paramedic’s face during an EMS trauma call. In the ambulance, while the paramedic leaned over the patient to switch the oxygen line, the patient forcefully exhaled because of excessive blood in his airway.
The spraying blood splattered onto my face and my lips, possibly into my mouth. Immediately I began spitting onto the floor to reduce chance of any exposure into my mucous membranes. During the episode, I was wearing eye and hand protection but was not wearing a mask. According to a fellow paramedic/firefighter, he could see blood splatter across my face. After arriving at the hospital, decon was commenced with washing off face/mouth with soap/water for several minutes.
Although an emergency PPE bag, including a mask, was available, the paramedic didn’t’ use it. The submitter reminds us that, “every incident has the possibility to present with an exposure and is why the initial unit needs to carry a PPE bag onto scene.”
Wear PPE Throughout a Response
The final case (Report #10-704) highlights the value of properly wearing PPE throughout any response, even after extinguishing a routine vehicle fire.
Firefighters were using a halogen tool to try to open the car hood after the fire was extinguished. A firefighter at the front of the car was struck by a hydraulic piston that held up the hood when raised. Although the hood was still in closed, the piston was ejected through the water channel.
If the firefighter had been standing at a different position or not been wearing full PPE, the outcome could have been much more serious. In this case, the hydraulic cylinder for the hood was not exposed since the hood had not yet been raised and, consequently, its presence was not confirmed. The heat from the engine fire caused the cylinder to explode from internal pressure and follow the path of least resistance through the gap between the hood and fender.
The fact that the webbing on the SCBA frame and the turnout coat was pierced by the exploding cylinder is an indication of the force of this type of event. Firefighters should be vigilant in recognizing the possibility of the presence of hydraulic cylinders when operating at vehicle fires.
The piston piercing the turnout coat wasn’t a predictable event. Injury was prevented by proper use of PPE during the entire call, not just until the obvious hazards of a vehicle fire were addressed.
Build Your Department's PPE Culture
To facilitate discussion of a PPE culture, review the full reports above and consider the following:
- Lead by example – When you appear on scene, are you following your department’s PPE protocols and guidelines?
- Protocols and guidelines – Are there any loopholes in your policies that are giving members the opportunity to not follow industry standards?
- Appropriate discipline – Do your members clearly understand what the discipline is for not properly using PPE?
- Reprogramming – Do your experienced members consider proper PPE usage to be for the younger generation and not them? How do you reestablish proper PPE usage for all members: recruits through seasoned members? The strategies may be different depending on the length of service.
- Maintenance – Is the PPE in your department maintained in accordance with NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting?
- Feedback – Do you provide feedback to your equipment supplier on issues with the equipment that may contribute to manufacturers making improvements to the equipment?
It’s our responsibility as officers to ensure PPE is used properly on every call, regardless of the severity or type of call. Share this article with your members to reinforce your department’s procedures and guidelines on PPE and to discuss the PPE culture in your department.
John C. Woulfe III is the assistant director of the IAFC’s National Programs and Consulting Services.