Protecting Derby firefighters is valuable investment

By Jake Trease
Derby Informer – April 8, 2015
Submitted by Newz Group Clipping Service – April 9, 2015

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Oftentimes, people seem to think of firefighters as people with superhuman abilities to withstand heat and breathe through dense smoke. While the firefighters themselves are ordinary people–with more courage than most–their equipment gives them some superhero-like abilities.

But that gear comes at a price. To completely outfit a firefighter with boots, gloves, pants, a coat and a hat, it costs around $2,300. And that doesn’t include the air tanks, which cost about $6,500 each.

The coats and pants are built to withstand some punctures with a second layer to keep moisture out and a third to protect from heat. The heat is withstood by the coat creating an air pocket.

“It keeps heat out to a certain extent,” Derby firefighter Zach Young said.

The coat and pants are rated to withstand 500 degrees for five minutes. But Young said there’s a bit of a misconception on what the gear can handle.

For example, a simple pat on the back could break the air pocket. If the air pocket is broken, the heat can start doing some damage.

Young said that he heard a story of someone grabbing the arm of a firefighter to get him out, which broke the air pocket on his arm. The firefighter received third-degree burns where he was grabbed.

“That’s pretty elevated temps if it’s to do that, but that’s what can happen,” Derby Fire Lt. Seth Glaves said.

And then there’s the “flashover,” or the process of the atmosphere heating up to an extent that the smoke is used as fuel by the fire.

“Pretty much everything lights off,” Young said. “All the smoke you have in the house is fuel and when it hits that certain temperature, everything just catches fire.”

If this happens, a firefighter has three seconds to vacate the area or he risks severe burns, Glaves said.

While the gear is certainly protective, it can be deceptively so. Young said the firefighter could feel hot, but not know if the temperatures are actually hot enough to damage their gear–or worse, set off a flashover.

That’s when other high-tech equipment comes in, like the thermal imaging camera (TIC). This allows firefighters to look through smoke to find victims or other firefighters, and to see exactly how hot the area is.

If it’s hot enough to be dangerous, the firefighters will need to spray down the area to cool it enough for firefighters to safely get in. Glaves said they only spray if it’s necessary, but will always err on the side of caution.

“Stuff will dry out but you can’t unburn things,” he said. “We would rather flow and err on the side of caution and keep the survivable space inside cooled off rather than risk it.”

Even if the heat is managed, smoke can damage lungs and eyes if protective equipment isn’t used. Firefighters use air tanks to breathe in good air whenever the atmosphere could be toxic.

Glaves said the department is purchasing new air packs, which will include a heads-up display (HUD) that shows how much air is remaining in the tank. How quickly that air disappears varies, he said.

“A lot of how hard they’re working, how good of shape they’re in…There’s a lot of factors,” he said.

Young said they train with the tanks to learn how to control breathing. But in the situation of an actual fire, he said adrenaline can take over.

Even though the tanks are rated to last 45 minutes, with the rate of breathing, and the regulation that requires firefighters to back out with a third of a tank remaining, they really last 20 to 25 minutes, he said.

If a firefighter does go down, another gadget, an integrated pass device, alarms with a flashing beacon and a loud beeping to help fellow firefighters find them.

While it’s a lot of equipment to manage, firefighters are required to be able to put it on in two minutes–one minute to get the coat, pants and boots on and another minute to get the tank attached in the truck.

Derby firefighter Justin Wallace said most of them practice to get down to a minute or less for everything.

And all of the equipment needs to be in working condition before going back to the station, just in case there’s another fire to fight.

“We never know when the next one will be,” Young said. “It could be when we’re on our way back to the station.”

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