Firefighters expose their bodies to many hazards---including toxic gases, flames and extreme heat---in order to protect people and property from fire. To minimise the risks to their own lives while carrying out their duties, firefighters carry protective gear and wear protective clothing.
The protective clothing worn by firefighters is called turnout gear. Firefighters originally wore uniforms consisting of thick wool trousers and red shirts. Wool was chosen because it was able to shield the firemen against both heat and cold, plus it is mildly resistant to water and flames. They also wore rubber slickers over their wool uniforms. After World War II, the National Fire Protection Association imposed equipment standards and mandated that firefighters have a uniform with several layers---one that was flame-resistant, another moisture-resistant and another that provided thermal insulation. As technology improved, so did the materials used for these layers.
The original firefighter helmet was made of leather, with a long rear brim and side brims that curled up to prevent water from running down the firefighter's neck and coat. It wasn't until the early 1900s that aluminium helmets came into use. They had the same shape as the leather helmets but were much cheaper to make. However, the aluminium helmets conducted both heat and electricity, forcing the more expensive leather to be used once again. Today's helmets are designed to withstand impacts, penetration, heat, flames and electricity. They are made of high-tech plastics and composite materials.
The first breathing devices for firefighters used air pumped from a bellows through a hose and into a "smoke mask." They were rarely used because they were bulky and unreliable. After World War I, the gas mask came into use, but it provided no protection from carbon monoxide. Nor did gas masks work in an oxygen-deficient environment. Today's masks are self-contained (versus filtering outside air, as the original masks did) and prevent toxic smoke and gases from being inhaled. They also provide a minimum service life of 30 minutes of clean air and 100 litres per minute of airflow.
Gloves and Boots
The first firefighters were required to supply their own gloves, typically made of leather. The first boots were made of leather and were knee-high. Eventually leather boots were replaced with rubber ones and extended to the hips. Gloves are now made of a special blend of high-performance fibres that make the gloves resistant to heat and fire. Boots are made out of a combination of synthetic materials, leather and rubber. Today's boot manufacturers focus not only on functionality but on comfort and durability as well.
Modern Technological Advances
Protective clothing today includes special sensors to help the firefighter assess the danger of a given environment. Modern turnout gear is so effective in insulating the firefighter from heat that she is often unaware when temperatures exceed safe levels. Thermal saturation detectors can now alert firefighters to this danger. And global positioning devices attached to clothes help firefighters find missing co-workers.