The History and Importance of Firefighter Turnout Gear

As one of the most dangerous professions in the present day, firefighters everywhere must rely on their protective clothing and years of experience in times of peril, pressure and life-threatening danger. To ensure their safety, PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) is an absolute necessity, typically comprising of a helmet, pants, coat, gloves, breathing apparatus and a PASS (Personal Alert Safety System) device. PPE is popularly referred to as either “Turnout Gear”, “Bunker Gear”, or “Fire Kit” (in the UK). Specialized outer protective clothing was originally worn for warmth and dryness instead of protection against the flames.

Firefighters didn’t have the same quality of protective clothing in the past, and the majority of fires were fought from the exterior of burning buildings if possible. Early in the history of firefighting, structures on fire were hardly ever entered into, until the emergence of rubber boots and long trench coats. Racing into risk-filled, flame-fuelled buildings, firefighters needed gear that would safely protect themselves, and these aforementioned trench coats were the early forerunners to PPE gear. SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) items began to materialize after World War I, featuring a metered compressed breathing air system that sent air into an accompanying face mask. These were very expensive to produce, and highly cumbersome for firefighters to wear.

Numerous technological advancements improved the efficiency of turnout gear over the years. At first, firefighters wore turnout gear consisting of red shirts and thick wool pants, as well as rubber slickers over their uniforms. After World War II, the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) drew up compulsory requirements for all firefighter uniforms to utilize triple layers. One layer was moisture-resistant, another was flame-resistant and the third had to provide thermal insulation. A blend of three-layer PPE gear, along with SCBA, PASS devices and modern communications equipment made it more practical for firefighters to enter burning buildings.

In the 1980s, fire-resistant materials such as Kevlar were used in the manufacture of the outer shell of PPE pants and coats. The first turnout boots were knee-high and made of leather, while current versions were smaller and made of vulcanized rubber with a Boron Steel toe cap. Fire proximity suits are specialized versions of PPE turnout gear that have an additional metallic heat-reflective coating, and are used in jobs involving intense heat, such as chemical fires and aircraft fires.

In an occupation where extreme variances in temperature and humidity are an everyday occurrence, many firefighters suffer from hot and cold feet, as well as getting continuously wet and dry. For those who are vulnerable to chilly temperatures and large amounts of cold water, wet boots must be dried as soon as possible. This helps decrease serious medical conditions, such as Pseudomonas Cellulitis and Athlete’s Foot