New Study Examines Hazards and PPE Needs for First Responders

Aug. 27, 2003
A new report prepared by RAND at the request of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health pinpoints some of the situations in which emergency responders face the greatest risk and the gaps in the development of the technology crucial to saving their lives.

"Emergency responders face a wide range of serious hazards in their jobs," state the report's authors, "which places them at high risk for occupational injury or death. This risk is mitigated by their using various forms of personal protective technologies (PPTs), such as protective garments, respiratory protection, environmental monitoring and communications equipment, and practices and protocols that focus on safety."

Findings of the report are based on in-depth interviews with 190 emergency responders, including structural firefighters, emergency medical service responders, police officers, emergency management officials, technology and service providers, researchers and program managers from 83 organizations around the country.

The report addresses:

  • The primary tasks that emergency responders undertake;
  • Situations in which the risk of injury is the greatest and that have the highest priority for improving personal protection;
  • Current and emerging technologies that are critical to protecting the health and safety of emergency responders;
  • Drivers of, impediments to and gaps in technology development.

Over the next few days, will review the report's findings about protecting various groups of first responders. Today, we focus on firefighters.

The firefighters who participated in the study said that while their turnout gear provided excellent flame retardance and thermal protection, several protection challenges remain. They mentioned component incapatibility and bodily exposure at component interfaces as concerns, citing mismatched gloves and coat cuffs as an example. They asked for standardized specification of component dimensions and interfaces.

They also mentioned the weight and heat caused by wearing full turn-out gear, a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and other firefighting equipment as a concern. They asked for increased vapor transmission of turnout textiles and improving the fit of turnout gear to increase its flexibility and comfort. They also suggested providing some type of personal monitoring system to alert firefighters before they suffer from heat stress or exhaustion.

Firefighters told researchers they are generally very satisfied with the respiratory protection afforded by SCBAs, but they said there are situations in which alternative forms of respiratory protection would be appropriate, such as during fire overhauls (searching for hidden hot spots, cleaning up debris and equipment, etc.) and search-and-rescue operations after a structural collapse. They called for ways to improve SCBAs, citing the desire for lighter and higher-capacity air bottles and improved air supply monitoring and warning capabilities.

Dr. John Howard, director of NIOSH, said his agency is already taking steps to address the needs voiced in the survey. The agency has "identified gaps in traditional respirators to protect first responders against chemical, biological and nuclear (CBTN) threats," said Howard, and is working to address those gaps by:

  • Developing and implementing NIOSH standards and certification programs for SCBAs and air-purifying respirators used by emergency responders;
  • Implementing standards for escape hood respirators used for emergency escape from CBRN exposures in workplaces, planned for September, followed in October by an escape hood certification program.
  • Producing standards and certification programs for other respirator classes, such as powered air-purifying respirators and integrated SCBA and air-purifying respirators.

The firefighters interviewed wanted improved communications for individual firefighters. They repeatedly pointed out that firefighters have great difficulty communicating person-to-person and over a radio while wearing an SCBA. They also mentioned their radios are not designed specifically to meet the needs of firefighters.

Another concern was fireground accountability, the ability to account for the whereabouts of firefighters at an incident scene. Existing accountability systems that rely on manually transferring personal identification tags to status boards were viewed as being outdated.

"The NIOSH study reinforces the concerns that have been repeatedly highlighted by the International Association of Fire Fighters, the recent report by the Council of Foreign Relations, the needs assessment by U.S. Fire Administration, the nation's mayors and governors and other organizations that have a true understanding of what is needed to prepare our first responders to deal with terrorist threats and weapons of mass destruction," said Harold A. Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Pointing to a lack of funding on the local level to implement new technologies and equipment that could save first responders' lives, Schaitberger added, "While the nation's fire fighters are committed to doing whatever is necessary to protect our citizens, even if it means putting their own lives at risk, they need federal resources at the local level to get the job done."

He said two-thirds of the nation's fire departments are understaffed, and funding is needed at the local level for fire fighter staffing, training and equipment. "It is of no use to have the best equipment and best training, if a fire department doesn't have adequate staffing to provide an effective response to every incident and emergency," said Schaitberger.

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