A firefighter's uniform is his most important asset. It protects him from the heat of the fire and from the dangers of smoke inhalation. Without this gear, a firefighter cannot effectively put out fires and rescue victims. Advancements in technology have vastly improved firefighter equipment over the years.
A firefighter uniform is called Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), "Bunker Gear" or structural turnouts. It is called turnouts because the clothes are turned inside out when not in use so that the firefighter can quickly step into them and pull them on. All of the following pieces are worn by most firefighters: a Nomex hood, cotton T-shirt, suspenders, insulated trousers with Velcro, spring hooks, and leather reinforcements; steel-toed, insulated rubber boots; a helmet with goggles and neck protecting flap; an insulated jacket with Velcro and spring hooks; a radio; a flashlight; insulated leather gloves; an SCBA harness; positive pressure mask; PASS device; airline and pressure gauge; SCBA shoulder straps, airtank bottle and backpack frame.
The primary function of the firefighter gear is to protect him from the heat of the fire and allow him to breathe safely while he works to put out fires and rescue victims. In addition, most of the gear has retroflective striping to make the firefighter more visible in the dark or through the smoke. The SCBA gear with the positive pressure mask keeps contaminants out by keeping air flowing continuously, even when the wearer is not inhaling. The firefighter's name is displayed on his helmet and air tank because of the difficulty of identifying individuals wearing so much gear. Colour coding allows firefighters to more easily differentiate between full-time firefighters, volunteers, paramedics, captains and fire chiefs. Some departments label newer firefighters with extra tape stripes to easily identify them during the fire. The PASS, or personal alert safety system, sends out an alert when a firefighter is running out of air or not moving so that other firefighters can offer assistance.
The first fire helmet, leather, high-crowned and wide brimmed, was invented in the 1730s by Jacobus Turck of New York City. This original helmet was replaced in 1836 by the Henry T. Gratacap design, similar to what we see today. Gratacap's design was a leather helmet with a reinforced dome and protective front shield and brim with a long back tail to cover the back of the neck. At this time, firefighters wore stiff wool trench coats and trousers with high leather boots. Air masks were developed in1825, and an early form of the SCBA breathing apparatus appeared in 1863, designed by James Braidwood. Some departments began to replace the leather boots with rubber and to cover the wool coats with rubber rain coats in the 1930s. After World War II, the National Fire Protection Association instituted standards for firefighter PPEs. The 1980s brought the advancements of PASS devices and fire resistant materials, like Nomex and Kevlar, which are still used today.
A complete set of firefighter's turnout gear can weigh about 31.8kg., not including any additional tools or gear. After each use, the gear becomes even heavier due to build-up of sweat and water stored in the outer shell and the thermal barrier. Uniforms are often specially made for individual firefighters to ensure a perfect fit.
Beyond the obvious benefit of protection from fire and smoke, firefighter turnout gear also provides the security of visibility and accessibility of tools. Coats and trousers have several pockets for extra gloves, a radio, a flashlight, or other necessary devices. Some coats have custom loops and D-ring carabiners to hold flashlights at centre chest or to attach additional equipment. The SCBA airtank bottle provides 30 minutes of fresh air and can be quickly and easily replaced when it runs out. The latest developments in firefighter gear work to make the profession as safe as possible for the men and women who encounter dangerous and life-threatening fires on a daily basis.