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Outfitting a firefighter

Eric Johnson is suited up and ready to enter the fire. Photo by Dan Saletel/Pine Journal.

If firefighters protect us, what protects our fighters?

Good gear helps.

It costs the Cloquet Area Fire District approximately $2,500 to outfit a firefighter from head to toe, even more to outfit an instructor, who spends more time exposed to heat and smoke.

"We had a burn a few years ago, fighting a fire [with another group of firefighters]," said Captain Chad Vermeersch. "They were saying, 'We've got to get out, it's too hot in here,' and we couldn't even feel the heat. Lo and behold, we got outside and they actually had burns. It was the difference in the two sets of gear. We were right next to them, couldn't feel a thing. We weren't even getting warm and they actually had burns on their shoulders. ... It's completely the difference in the quality of the gear you have."

Dressing a firefighter, from head to toe, goes like this:

Head

The first thing to go on is a Nomex hood - Nomex fabric is resistant to heat and flame - which protects the portions of the head not covered by the helmet and face mask from the intense heat of the fire.

Helmets come with bigger and smaller brims. Vermeersch said most of the Cloquet firefighters favor the larger brims because they provide more protection in case of falling embers, which otherwise could get inside their coats. A flashlight is usually attached to the helmet as well.

The last thing to go on is usually the face piece (aka SCBA mask), which connects to the air tank carried on the firefighter's back. Once the tank is opened up and the mask is on, all a firefighter has to do it breath to trigger air flow. "You don't want any gaps [between the mask and your face], you'd be amazed at how steam can find its way in," Vermeersch said.

Body

The classic jacket and pants have been remade with modern - and far superior - materials. While the cost ($1,800 for both) reflects that, Vermeersch says it's worth it. While the old gear was made out of neoprene (think a rain coat liner) the neoprene also trapped everything in. The new outfits have GORE-TEX, which allows moisture to get out, "because we've been steam-burned too many times wearing the other stuff," Vermeersch said, adding that all the outfits at CAFD have either a GORE-TEX or CROSSTECH Liner. (And yes, firefighters still train their pants to drape over their boots when they're not being worn.)

The air tank is held on with shoulder and waist straps. Each tank will hold close to 45 minutes of air, but when firefighters are very active, they may use the air up in half that time. Each tank also has a loud beeping alarm, which is triggered after only 15 seconds of inactivity in case a firefighter goes down inside, where visibility is frequently about 6-12 inches.

Hands and Feet

Gloves are made with heat-resistant Nomex lining, just like the hood, and leather. Boots are either made of rubber or leather, with a solid steel bottom so they won't be penetrated by metal.

"The whole ensemble when it's new is good at 1,500 degrees for about 7 seconds," Vermeersch said. "That's when it's brand spanking new. From that point forward, the cleaner you keep your gear, the better shape you keep your gear, the better your level of protection."

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