The photograph shows seven smiling women, all obviously pregnant, wearing turnout gear and standing in front of a department’s engine. The women are not firefighters, but rather wives of firefighters in that department who are all expecting babies within a six-month period. The news story, a feel-good feature, talks about the current baby boom on the department and how a local commercial photographer decided to document it.
It’s a cute picture, but I couldn’t help but feel uneasy when I saw it – the same day an article I wrote about the importance of following NFPA 1851 for the maintenance of turnout gear was posted. My article covered the extensive lengths some departments go to for the purpose of protecting their members from the potential dangers of contaminated gear. These practices include required on-scene decontamination while still wearing full PPE and limiting where turnout gear can be stored or transported, both on and off duty.
Is operational bunker gear potentially hazardous due to its exposure to toxic products of combustion as well as other contaminants that are common in the firefighter’s work environment? Do some of these risks linger even if the gear is cleaned on a regular basis? The answer to these questions is clearly yes, based on the research that has been done, the standards that have been written, and the polices developed by many fire departments that limit their members’ contact with this gear.
Yet still there is a steady stream of photographs using operational turnout gear as a prop for commercial photography: pregnant women posing in it, children snuggling up in it, nursing mothers cradling infants against it.
Adjusting the bar of what’s considered safe in the fire service
When I first expressed my concerns about the recent photograph via an online forum, I expected some pushback, and I got it. About half the comments said the photo was no big deal, it was only positive for those involved, and that I should lighten up.
Others shared concern for the issues I raised about health and safety in the handling of operational bunker gear, pointing out that once the gear is used in hazardous environments, it is never truly clean and free of contaminants, even when washed on a regular basis.
Were any of those women harmed by wearing their husbands’ bunker gear around the station for an hour or so? Almost certainly – and hopefully – not. The issue here is not about any individual, but rather about creating a consistent culture of health and safety in the fire service.
One of the main arguments made in support of such photographs is that the chance of any danger from a short exposure is small, and besides, people have been taking such pictures for generations, and there’s no evidence of any real harm being done.
But that same argument could be used for many things that were once common practice but are no longer acceptable for firefighters: wearing day boots, riding the tailboard, working overhaul without PPE, to name a few.
Project a consistent firefighter safety message
Emergency services leaders know a lot more about potential hazards from firefighting than they did decades ago. This knowledge has led to big changes, such as cancer presumption laws in many states and also to new policies and practices when it comes to handling and maintaining protective gear. So why would it make sense for a department to reprimand a firefighter for taking bunker gear into the station dorm against department policy, but be perfectly OK with that same firefighter dressing up his five-year-old in his bunker gear for a birthday party?
Is it fun to have your kids dress up like firefighters and pose for pictures? Of course – such photos may be valuable keepsakes and cherished memories. But those photos should be staged and taken within the health and safety guidelines that are in place for the handling of gear and equipment.
The fact that civilians – both children and adults – may want to dress up in firefighting gear is easily addressed. If you want to accommodate them, simply buy additional turnout gear in appropriate sizes (there are facsimiles available that are lighter, less expensive and look like the real thing). Keep it clean and separate from operational gear, and let people have fun with it.
But if you want firefighters and members of the community to understand and respect the hazards that are attached to the job, then you must project a consistent message and attitude about safety in all areas. Operational bunker gear is either potentially hazardous or it isn’t. You can’t have it both ways.