Firefighters battling blazes that have broken out around the state will soon be wearing new protective gear, which could be ready for this fire season.
After decades of donning the yellow, fire-resistant pants called Nomex over their uniform while fighting wildfires, firefighters with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection are switching to a single-layer, dual-purpose pant that will serve as both a uniform and protection from fire.
Department leaders are excited about the change, contending the new uniforms will keep firefighters safe and a little cooler than their current gear. But some firefighters have expressed concern about the gear change online, worrying that they might bring home toxic material from the field because they’ll no longer have an outer layer of firefighting gear to strip off.
“I would go out on a limb and say that there’s no doubt that protective gear for wildland firefighters is contaminated during an incident,” said Matt Rahn, a researcher who wrote a study that found firefighters who wore a single-layer pant reduced their risk of heat-related injuries while fighting fires. “The question is: What type of contamination remains?”
The gear change was several years in the making, and aims to reduce the likelihood of heat-related injuries, according to Scott McClean, the deputy chief of Cal Fire. McClean said a group of Cal Fire experts determined that “the current Cal Fire wildland protective ensemble required less protection ... from thermal energy, which is the primary cause of burn injuries, and a greater ability for heat stress relief.”
In other words, switching to a single layer of protection “will allow the heat from your body to dissipate better” and reduce instances of heatstroke and heat exhaustion, which have increased in recent years as fires have gotten hotter, said Tim Edwards, the Cal Fire union’s state rank and file director. Cal Fire has spent several years studying and testing the pants, which could be rolled out by October, Edwards said. He said the union supports use of the new pants.
But the gear change, announced in June, has some current and former firefighters worried about increased exposure to cancer-causing material. Currently, when firefighters extinguish a wildfire, they strip their outer layer of protective gear and stow the Nomex in a compartment inside their fire engine.
Without an outer layer of clothing to shed, there’s concern that carcinogens and other toxins that might be clinging to firefighters’ clothes could be transferred to people with whom firefighters come into contact, at a restaurant, hotel or at home.
“How do you decontaminate the wildland pants between calls? Will firefighters be given access to facilities to change clothes BEFORE they leave the scene of a fire? Or will they be forced to contaminate the inside of the engine because they are wearing only one layer?” Libby Groom commented on a Cal Fire union Facebook post about the change. “There’s got to be a better way.”
Calvin McVay was worried about the protection the single layer would provide. He commented that he would be willing to “drink a little extra water (to avoid dehydration) before I wanted debilitating burn injuries. ... Something smells fishy here.”
Edwards said firefighters will have the chance to change out of their soiled clothes at base camp or in the fire engines. He said the potential of spreading harmful toxins is something the agency was “absolutely worried about” when considering the switch.
“That’s why there are still details to be worked out to make sure they can change them out,” he said, including the possibility of an under short. “I can never say there will never be an instance” where a firefighter does not get to change, but it will be up to individuals to take the initiative to remove soiled clothes, Edwards added.
Cal Fire will supply each firefighter with five pairs of the new pants, which will cost about $180 apiece, Edwards said, and firefighters will be required to purchase an additional two from their uniform allowance. The agency will pay to replace pants that are damaged, he said.
Rahn, a professor who studies firefighter health and safety at California State University, San Marcos, said increased cancer risks and other dangers associated with fighting structure fires that include burning plastics are well-documented, but researchers are scrambling to determine health risks for fighting wildfires — he’s in the middle of a two-year study aiming to do just that.
“From an understanding and research standpoint, wildland firefighting is a generation behind,” he said.
Rahn said researchers know dangerous contaminants like heavy metals and airborne acids can stick to firefighters’ gear from smoke in structure fires. Now, he said, they need to determine how much of a risk that is to firefighters dealing with vegetation blazes.
Rahn expects Cal Fire will devise a way to avoid situations in which firefighters are exposing the public to potentially harmful contaminants.
“My assumption on all of this is that the department will need to adopt new protocols for their firefighters to make sure that exactly that sort of incident doesn’t occur,” he said. “Anytime we make a change in the protective gear, there are trade-offs in those decisions. And most likely, changes in the standard operating procedures of the firefighters to make sure that they’re not resolving a heat stress issue for a potential contamination issue.”