How Do We Adapt to Firefighters’ Working Realities in the New Decade?
By Alexandra Serban
January 13, 2020
In 1980, US local fire departments responded to some 10.8 million emergency calls, 3 million of which classified as fire calls. By 2018, the number of calls tripled, but the no. of fire emergencies plummeted to 1.3 million, according to the NFPA.
Nowadays, firefighters’ do less structural fire firefighting. And this change in work focus prompts a rethinking of how fire departments invest their resources.
The evolution of firefighter work
Thanks to stricter fire codes, fireproof building materials, increased public knowledge of fire prevention and installation of protective devices like smoke alarms and sprinklers, urban structure fires have sharply decreased in the past years.
This trend was also influenced by a significant drop in car fires. "This decline is mainly due to improved vehicle quality," says Christina Holcroft, an analyst at the National Fire Protection Association, in this article. "Manufacturers are paying more attention to fire risk, so cars just don't burn as often."
We have also witnessed less outdoor fires in urban areas, mainly due to municipal restrictions on burning leaves and trash out in the open. Believe or not, less indoor smoking also helped cut down the number of fire-related incidents.
In response to this years-long evolution of safety measures, firefighters took on other tasks, as emergency medical responders. In addition to extinguishing fires and rescuing individuals, they deliver time-sensitive interventions such as defibrillation and CPR in cardiac arrest situations.
Firefighters respond to more medical calls per year than fires.
Medical emergencies are outpacing the number of fire calls. Firefighters are oftentimes first to arrive at the scene whenever there is a medical distress situation.
In 2015, the Los Angeles County Fire department received 303,151 calls, 77.8% out of which were emergency medical calls. Only 2.17% (8,443 calls) were fire calls.
So, if most calls are not structural fires, why use the same PPE?
Most fire departments use their expensive, sophisticated turnout gear or station wear on medical emergencies and search and rescue missions. This can prove to be an unnecessary burden as firefighters need extra time to suit up.
Heavier gear – full PPE can weigh up to 70 pounds - also means more consumed energy and a higher risk of overexertion for firefighters. The internal heat buildup can result in heat stress disorders.
Read more about key cooling strategies for mitigating heat stress in this article.
Structural firefighter PPE, known as turnout gear or bunker gear, is designed for structural firefighting and is a large item in a fire company’s budget. In the US, basic firefighter PPE (helmet, hood, pants, coat, gloves, boots and air pack) starts from $ 3000.
Furthermore, the NFPA recommends that all gear is replaced ten years after it's put into service, or sooner if it rips, tears, or suffers heat-related damage. New NPFA 1851 regulations also require fire departments to conduct two advanced cleanings each year, and whenever it is exposed to products of combustion (e.g., fire gases and smoke particulates).
By the way, we’ve discussed how to reduce carcinogen exposure through PPE decontamination in this webinar.