We all know everyday heroes. They run into burning homes, brave raging floodwaters, battle devastating wildfires and help stop epidemics.
“Protecting Our Heroes: A Tribute to Safety and Innovation” is an online gallery, video and multi-city, pop-up exhibit launched Oct. 13 by Plastics Make it Possible. Working with the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA), Plastics Make it Possible identified a dozen everyday heroes across the country – firefighters, policemen, medical professionals and other rescuers – and tells their personal stories of harrowing experiences on the job.
These real-life heroes rely on personal protective equipment (PPE) to help keep them safe. Often, this equipment is constructed of plastic, such as the strong polycarbonate plastic helmets and goggles that help prevent head and eye injuries, and innovative neoprene plastic dry suits that help protect water rescuers from frigid temperatures and debris.
“I’ve spent over 1,100 hours fighting the recent fires in Montana, Idaho and Oregon,” says wildland firefighter Bailey McDade, a featured hero and one of many firefighters facing an especially busy 2017 fire season. “For all the protective gear you wear, there’s nothing that can prepare your nerves for the roaring intensity of a wildfire. To keep me here – and the fires out – we rely on plastic protective equipment that’s resistant to heat and flames, yet very lightweight.”
In an interview with EHSToday.com, McDade, who is based in Arizona but who travels wherever she’s needed as a wildlands firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service, says that her educational background is in land conservation and she first became interested in fighting forest fires by conducting and studying controlled burns, which have a long history in wildlands management. Controlled burning is conducted during cooler months to reduce fuel buildup and decrease the likelihood of serious hotter fires during the fire season. It stimulates the germination of some trees, which helps to renew the forest.
In countries like the United States, authorities oversee the controlled burns. From that beginning, McDade realized that firefighting was her calling and she trained for and became a wildlands firefighter.
Wildlands versus Structural Fires
The gear worn by wildlands firefighters like McDade and the structural firefighters we see at our local fire stations is very different, just as the process of fighting those fires – wildlands versus structural – is every different. Wildlands firefighters often spend hours hiking in to the location of fire and camp out near the fire line for days, if necessary. They don’t work “regular” hours or shifts and McDade says her gear bag – which contains her protective clothing, PPE and firefighting gear – is always packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice.
“It’s not like being a firefighter in Montana, where you work a regular shift and get called to a fire by the side of the road,” says McDade. “I’m always on call for the whole fire season. A typical day for me involves always being ready [to fight a wildlands fire somewhere in the United States].”
Rather than the large turnout gear worn by traditional firefighters, McDade and her fellow wildlands firefighters wear lightweight pants and shirts made out of Nomex, boots, helmets, safety glasses and gloves. They carry backpacks, also made from blended plastics, that hold their food, water and shelters. Hoses and a bladder bag holding five gallons of water (which weighs 45 pounds!) are made of flexible nylon and strap onto the backpacks.
One especially important piece of equipment is her face and neck shroud. Also made from Nomex, the shroud is Velcroed to the back of her hard hat and can be wrapped around her face and neck to protect her airway and protect her face and neck from heat, flames and embers. “Our job is to hold that fire line. When you hear, ‘shroud down,’ you immediately pull your shroud around your face and neck. When I do that, it’s like closing an oven door,” she says.
She says her family and friends are supportive of her choice to be a wildlands firefighter, although they do worry about her safety. It’s unusual for a woman to choose it as a career and McDade is younger than many of her fellow firefighters.
When asked if she thinks of herself as an everyday hero, McDade countered by saying: “I don’t think of it in those terms. I love working on a crew. I grew up playing sports and I loved being on teams. What we do… it feels important, bigger than yourself. We know we are part of a much bigger effort.”
PPE Saves Lives
McDade credits training, her fellow crew members and appropriate PPE in helping her do her job safely. “As we face a country battling devastating fires right now, people may not realize how important our equipment is,” she says. “We take our personal protective gear for granted sometimes, but when you head into the smoldering mouth of a wildfire, you realize what you’re wearing and using are ultimately saving your life.”
“According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 4,000 workers are killed on the job in a given year. When used correctly, PPE can help bring those numbers down,” says ISEA President Charles Johnson. “May we be ever diligent to put protection into every practice of our lives and be thankful for the technology and the innovations that allow our heroes to do their jobs.”
In addition to McDade, the online gallery and interactive exhibit for “Protecting Our Heroes: A Tribute to Safety and Innovation” include a search-and-rescue specialist who helps save victims in floods, a smokejumper who parachutes into remote locations to fight wildfires and the nation’s first female bomb technician, who uses a plastic bomb detector with sensors to locate and disarm explosives, sometimes in the midst of sandstorms. These three heroes are highlighted in a short video that airs in the pop-up exhibit, as well as online at www.plasticsmakeitpossible.com/heroes.
“Plastics makers are proud to have a role in protecting the brave Americans who protect us all,” said Steve Russell, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council, which sponsors Plastics Make it Possible. “High-performance plastics provide the critical combination of strength, durability and mobility that protect the heroes who protect us.”
The “Protecting Our Heroes” online gallery can be found at www.plasticsmakeitpossible.com/heroes. The pop-up exhibit is free-of-charge and open to the public at Copley Place in Boston from Oct. 13-15, followed by an exhibit at Greystone in Piedmont Park in Atlanta from Oct. 20-22. Additional exhibit sites will be announced in the future