What do Firefighters wear to Protect Themselves?

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I think anyone can picture a firefighter in their minds. Probably dressed in some yellow or tan hefty suit with a strange mask and goofy looking helmet on. Oh and you probably may have even noticed the scuba tank looking thing on their back.

But what is all that stuff and how does it protect them? Well that my friends, is what firefighters call bunker/turnout gear. Its our personal protective gear and yes it is bulky and rather heavy but for a good reason. Lets break it down piece by piece.

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Bunker (Turnout) Coat and Pants

The most obvious peice of protectitive gear is the firefighters coat and pants. This something firefighters wear on pretty much any hazardous call. Thats including fires, rescues and vehicle accidents.

Some will even have rescue harness built into the pants for rappelling. The structure of the material is made up of three layers: thermal liner, moisture barrier and outer shell.

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What’s so special about the Outer Shell on Bunker (Turnout) Gear?

The outside, the exposed material that everyone sees, is the real magic of the Gear. The material is heavy duty, thick, and cut resistant (plus, clearly flame resistant). It provides about 20% of the thermal protection.

Bunker Gear comes in LOTS of different colors. While these range in colors, they are all effective. Generally, you’ll see black, tan or yellow. Usually these outer shells have reflective material stitched on for higher visibility in dark buildings and on the road ways during traffic accidents.

Then there’s the Moisture Barrier

This is laminated material to prevent moisture and harmful chemicals to making contact to the firefighters skin. Its often sewn into a moisture wicking material for breathability.

A lot of times harmful gases and carcinogens are released in fires then firefighters use large amounts of water to put it out. This water is now contaminated with those carcinogens so the moisture barrier helps limit the absorption into the skin.

Clothes Firefighters are wearing underneath the Gear

This is a less commonly used piece of equipment. Most of the time firefighters are wearing basic station clothes underneath the gear. This is usually cotton or some sort of synthetic material. But some departments issue clothes that are made of nomex or Kevlar that have a much higher melting point.

These materials tend to be breathable and stronger, making them ideal for the jobs firefighters have. These progressions in clothing relatively new to the industry but it’s a strong possibility it will be more common in the future as more data and testing is done.

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The SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus)

You know that goofy looking upside down scuba tank that firefighters wear on their backs? Well that is called an SCBA. But most firefighter will simply call it an air pack. Its composed of multiple part with multiple purposes.

The most obvious part is the giant bottle on the back. Inside that bottle is air…not oxygen. This is what firefighters breath off of in low air quality environments which is the primary purpose of this piece of equipment. The air is fed from the bottle and to a regulator fitted for the firefighters mask.

Another thing the SCBA does that the most of the public isn’t aware of is its ability to sense the lack of movement and will sound a very loud distinct alarm so other firefighters may find the down firefighter.

This also has a low air alarm that beeps and also vibrates at the regulator to insure the fire fighter knows that its time to leave and refill their air. On top of there is also a HUD on the regulator that only the firefighter can see from inside the mask.

This display uses LEDs to show the air level remaining in the pack. Knowing how much air is left in the bottle allows the fire fighter to estimate how much time he has left before he needs to start exiting the structure.

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The Mask on the Air pack

This is the part that completes the Self Contained Breathing Apparatus(SCBA). The mask that firefighters wear connected to the air pack via a regulator and hose to create a completely sealed air way.

This also tends to be the part of the bunker gear that scares kiddos. So make sure you teach your kids what a firefighter looks like just in case they ever need us!

Masks are evolving quickly and integrating more technology and attachments such as built in thermal indicator cameras and voice modulators.

Unfortunately this tends to be the weakest point of most firefighter gear. It’s melting point of the polycarbonate lens is roughly 450 degrees Fahrenheit and that may seem like a lot but in a fully involved house fire it can get much hotter than that.

The Firefighter Helmet

Ahhh. The most traditional price of gear a Firefighter owns.

The Classic Helmet.

I’m going to speak specifically about the helmets in the United States and yes it’s very different over seas but we will get back to that.

The first firefighter helmet design for America came about in the 1820s and hasn’t changed much. The original helmet was made of leather. While most helmets are now made of a olastic like material some firefighters still hand make and use leather helmets.

Most people believe that firefighters wear their helmet backwards like a baseball cap. But actually that is the way its intended to be worn. You see the large bill on the back keeps hot water and wet insulation from running down our back when we are working a fire.

Most firefighters will customize their helmet with a flash light attachment, graphic decals or a custom leather shield that displays their unit or ID number.

Now as for overseas in places like Europe the helmets look more like jet fighter pilot helmets. Which Is more ergonomic and possibly safer. Alot of their helmets have built in drop down face shield which adds to futuristic like effect.

And Hand Protection Varies, but there are Gloves

The gloves that firefighters often look like common work gloves. These are actually a cross between work gloves and oven mits. Inside the glove is think insulated material to prevent burning of the hands in those hot enviroments. The gloves are often made up of leather and synthetic material for durability and cut resistance.

They work most of the time but if they become saturated with water the hands can become vulnerable to steam burns in those hot environments. Most of the time the severity of the burn is equal to that of a bad sun burn, but it does have the potential to be much worse.

Plus, Firefighters need Heavy Duty Boots

These are heavy insulated work boots that are mostly water resistant as well. Usually these are made out a combination of leather and rubber material to achieve protection with some dexterity…but I assure you we are not running a marathon in these.

These boots are heavy, loud and don’t exactly flex with your foot. But they protect the feet from sharp objects, falling debris and of course heat. The upside is the strong ankle support since more often then not firefighters are stepping on un even materials or tripping over things in the dark. Yes firefighters tend to be a little clumsy in this gear.

While not clothing, it’s treated as such : The Bailout Kit

This is a peice of gear most people don’t talk about. The bailout kit is meant to be a one time use when you have to make a quick escape with no other options. It’s usually comprised of some sort of roper, a hook or carabiner and a lowering device.

This can be a simplistic setup that attaches to the airpack or something more complex and compact that fits into your bunker pants pocket and attaches to your integrated harness.

My department uses something called the escape artist that fits into our pocket and uses webbing instead of rope. This makes It a lighter and lower profile piece of equipment.

Accessories may vary

This is the part which is mostly specific to the individual firefighter. These accessories will often serve as a safety purpose as well as a utility purpose. This is not a comprehensive list but just some common items.

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You will often see a block of triangle shaped wood strapped to the outside of a firefighters helmet. This a wedge used for Forcible Entry and keeping a door open if needs.

When a firefighter forces a door open a lot of times it can be a tedious progression to create a gap to insert the other tools to pry it open. So they will use the wedge to capture the progress and hold that gap until they can get other tools set to finish the job.

Lineman pliers

These are commonly used in the electrical industry and like most tools firefighters have repurposed them for use on the job. While its useful to have a pair pliers for various utility reasons firefighters carry these for a safety reason as well.

A lot of commercial buildings have drop down ceiling that contain a lot of electrical wiring for lighting and various other things. During a fire these ceiling can fall and cause an entanglement hazard for firefighters. That’s where these pliers come in handy where firefighters can cut themselves out of the wire mess.

Flat Webbing

This is kind of a trade secret in the fire service. Most firefighters will carry a length of webbing in their pocket, a lot of times with a carabiner attached. The applications are virtually endless depending on your creativity.

The most common reason is if they have to drag a downed firefighter out of a structure. They will fashion it into a harness or drag strap to attach to the firefighter and haul ass out.

They will also use it for door control. When a a building is on fire every opening or closing to the outside effects the flow path of that fire. Done carelessly or incorrectly results can be severe. So firefighters may tie webbing to a door while forcing it open to keep it from swinging wide open.

Like I said the possibilities and uses can be endless. Making it in incredibly versatile and lightweight tool to have.


The TIC which stands for thermal indicator camera is incredibly useful tool especially in those dark or smokey conditions. This is used to detect heat signatures from fire or victims.

Alot of times small amounts of fire can hide in void spaces, behind wall and in the ceiling. This can be like a needle in a haystack. With TIC finding those hot spots is alot faster due to it showing what a firefighter can’t see with his human eyes.

This tool is also extremely helpful in finding victims big and small. In dark, low visibility and choatic conditions it makes the game of hide and go seek a dangerous one. The TIC allows firefighters to see the warmth of a victim thus streamlining rescues.

Rescue knife

Since the amount of times a firefighter ends up needing to cut things, off of people and themselves, a rescue knife is definitely helpful. I personally keep one on me for mostly vehicle accidents for cutting seatbelts, breaking windows and removing airbags.

It also is a great alternative to trauma shears for removing victims clothes to search for injuries. (Yes unfortunately trauma=naked)

Not everything but the basics

This is simply a generalized list of the things firefighters wear and keep on them to protect themselves. This is to also protect victims as well. After all a firefighter is no good if he or she is also injured or in endangered. Hopefully this helps bring clarity next to you see a firefighter all decked out going to work on a burning building.

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