- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 1999

Firefighters clad in space-age, flame-retardant fabrics can attack a big fire more aggressively than ever. But the gear designed to protect every square inch of exposed skin may be giving firefighters a false sense of security.”Right now, you wear a hood, you wear gloves, you wear turnout gear and you feel nothing. You could be operating in a deadly atmosphere and not even know it,” said Jack McLoughlin, president and founder of the Fire Research Corporation, a New York-based company. “You don’t know how hot it is until the heat works its way through your clothing. By then, you’re in deep trouble.”
Too much protection and fires that burn hotter and faster, in other words, could be putting firefighters in danger.
On Monday, a dozen Montgomery and Prince George’s county, Md., firefighters survived a close call when they were ordered off the roof and out of a burning building that housed a Jiffy Lube on New Hampshire Avenue. About 45 seconds later, the roof collapsed.
“Our firefighters barely escaped. It was too close. Everyone at that scene recognized the potential [for disaster],” said Capt. Dan Gilman, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service.
“Those crews may have been able to work a little longer in that building in that gear and were unaware of the deteriorating conditions,” said Capt. Gilman, adding that those situations highlight the importance of having experienced officials observing conditions from the outside as was the case Monday.
The incident occurred just three days after a half dozen firefighters in Worchester, Mass., died after responding to a fire at an abandoned warehouse.
“Mayday, mayday. We’re running out of air,” radioed two firefighters who had become disoriented in the smoke and heat. Four firefighters who went back into the building to find their colleagues also died. Results of that investigation are likely months away.
In the past few years, departments have purchased clothing made of increasingly fire-retardant materials that allow firefighters to get closer to fires and stay in them longer. From ski-mask type hoods that fit over a firefighter’s head and neck to leather gloves that are layered in thick protecting materials, the gear has changed the way firefighters do their job.
But in covering every inch of skin, the so-called personal protection equipment also masks the telltale signs like blistering ears that tell veteran firefighters they are in danger.
“You’re not getting the same burns that say Hey, you better slow down,’ ” said District of Columbia Firefighter Ron Kemp, a nine-year veteran, who works in Rescue Squad One at Engine 2 near MCI Center. “By the time you’re feeling the burn, you’re already in trouble. Once the heat comes through the gear, you only have so long.”
Last year, 91 U.S. firefighters died in the line of duty. Of the 35 deaths not involving heart attacks or vehicle crashes, 22 firefighters died on the scene of a fire, including 16 deaths that occurred inside or on the roofs of burning buildings.
While the number of fatalities has dropped dramatically in the past decade, firefighters’ injuries, particularly burns, are increasingly severe many occurring with no damage to their clothing.
“The body starts to sweat and it becomes like a microwave,” one firefighter said.
About 87,000 firefighters were injured in the line of duty last year, an increase of 2.5 percent from 1997. Of those, about 4,830 required hospitalization a 1.7 percent increase from the previous year. Nearly 50 percent of the injuries occurred on the scene of fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
As firefighters’ gear has evolved many materials are products of space research fires also have changed. Federal researchers in the past three years have begun extensive studies into fires and the tactics used to battle them. One of their conclusions: With more and more plastics in homes and buildings, fires are burning hotter than decades ago.
The building technology used in energy-efficient homes is creating very hot and very dangerous fires. Insulation like double-paned windows and siding on houses tend to confine fires that have nowhere to vent producing extreme heat.
“The fire environments have changed dramatically in the last 20 years. They are a lot hotter and things are happening a lot quicker, like flashovers and rollovers. The amount of heat coming out is huge,” said Fairfax County, Va., Fire and Rescue Department Capt. Dean Cox.
Every few years, manufacturers add features to firefighting clothing that essentially encapsulate a firefighter. While every firefighter agrees the gear is a godsend, most also acknowledge there are risks.
“It’s a double-edge sword,” Capt. Gilman said.
Benefits, though, outweigh the risks.
“If you don’t have it on and you get involved in a rollover or flashover, you have no protection,” said D.C. Firefighter Jim Ward.
Capt. Gilman agreed.
“When a situation turns sour and there’s a rapid deterioration of conditions, the better quality gear may enable us to better escape those situations,” he said.
Prince George’s County paramedic Danny Hughes said county paramedics treat about six burned firefighters each year.
“We see burns that we wouldn’t have seen years ago. [The gear provides] a false sense of security,” he said. “For every large fire, we see at least one burn-related incident, even if it’s minor.”
As the protective gear becomes more advanced, manufacturers are offering devices that help firefighters determine when the conditions are worsening.
In Prince George’s County, for example, firefighters are testing sensors mounted inside a firefighter’s coat that set off an alarm when the temperature reaches 150 degrees.
“We used to use our ears, hands or wrist to gauge where things were as far as the temperature. Now people are in these high-heat environments and they don’t realize they are burning themselves until after the fact,” said Prince George’s County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Capt. Chauncey Bowers.
The Fire Research Corp., which markets more than 60 fire service items just began selling the BurnSaver, which is a 4-inch-long, $100 device that clips to a firefighter’s helmet to give them a visual indication of the temperature in the area they are working.
But there are other devices that also have been created in hopes of saving lives. For example, most fire departments also supply their firefighters with devices called integrated personal alert safety systems electronic alarms that sound when a firefighter is motionless for 30 seconds.D.C. fire officials ordered the devices distributed to firefighters this week.
After a review into the recent deaths of two D.C. firefighters, the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health recommended an increase in fire staffing and newer safety alarms and radios.
D.C. firefighters Anthony Phillips, 30, a four-year veteran, and Lewis J. Matthews, 29, a seven-year veteran of the department died and two other firefighters were injured May 30 while fighting a fire that engulfed a Northeast home.
Firefighter Phillips was wearing an updated alarm system that automatically sounds when a firefighter is motionless for several seconds. Firefighter Matthews’ manual system was not activated and it took rescuers another four minutes to locate him, the federal report said.

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