Fire Fighting in Canada

Features Volunteers
Volunteer Vision: September 2009

I get it: firefighters love their bunker gear, and by bunker gear I mean structural firefighting coat and pants. We wear it to everything – medical alarms, C/O alarms, motor vehicle accidents and, of course, fires, for which it is designed.

September 14, 2009
By Brad Patton

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I get it: firefighters love their bunker gear, and by bunker gear I mean structural firefighting coat and pants. We wear it to everything – medical alarms, C/O alarms, motor vehicle accidents and, of course, fires, for which it is designed.

My concern with wearing bunker gear to everything instead of coveralls or jumpsuits made of Nomex, PBI or some other approved material is that bunker gear, no matter how great the latest design, quickly leads to fatigue and fatigue quickly leads to strains, sprains and other physical injuries.

The worst thing about bunker gear is that when you’re working hard it significantly increases your metabolic temperature, in other words, your insides get very hot, which can lead to stokes or heart attacks.

When I received my first set of bunker gear (used, of course, but clean) it felt great to put it on. It was my battle dress, I felt invincible! As the years went on and I received newer, better bunker gear that was measured to fit, the feeling just got better.

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As I look back, however, we were going to a lot of fires then and it just seemed best to put on the battle gear for every alarm. I’m not sure that’s the case now and I know we shouldn’t be wearing bunker gear as much as we do.

Bunker gear costs between $1,300 and $ 2,000 a set. Good quality coveralls made for the fire service cost between $300 and $ 1,200. Fire chiefs and health and safety advocates should take a good look at this situation. Should firefighters wear bunker gear to the 90 per cent of non-fire-related calls to which we respond?

There are some very good coveralls and jumpsuits out there that meet our needs and standards. Coveralls are lighter, cooler, fit better and offer protection from fire, chemicals, blood and other bodily fluids, and cuts and bruises.

Are we making a tough job even harder by putting firefighters in full turnout gear for a motor-vehicle accident with a person trapped and its 35 C maybe 40 C with the humidex? Not only could we save a lot of wear and tear on our staff and the bunker gear, we could make things a lot more comfortable and safer for our firefighters.

I know there may be push back from some – they want to wear their battle dress and nothing else feels the same – but I’m sure once they understand the connection between bunker gear fatigue, physical injuries, stokes and heart attacks they will start to come around.

It’s just crazy to watch 20 to 50 firefighters wearing full bunker gear at a large grass or bush fire, then an hour later the coats come off because the firefighters get hot and tired and then their entire upper bodies are exposed to flying embers or flareups.

Bunker gear is designed for structural interior fire fighting and not for wildland fire fighting. Even if you just respond to one or two big ones a year is it worth an injury or death?

Bunker gear is not designed for medical calls, MVCs, hydro wires down or technical rescue. Firefighters’ internal temperatures can reach dangerously high levels when they are fully dressed in bunker gear fighting a house fire or doing auto extrication. It’s time to save the firefighters and the bunker gear.

  • If you’re going to buy coveralls, here are a few suggestions.
  • If your department can afford it, spend the money and buy the good stuff – there really is a difference.
  • Make sure the coveralls are built to a standard for which you intend to use them, like NFPA 1977 or 1951 / 1999.
  • There are several types of material out there including Nomex, and several styles with lots of pockets, zippered legs, reflective trim and other comforts and accessories. Let’s get the right equipment for the job.

Five to 10 per cent of what we do involves structural fire fighting. Why do we wear bunker gear 100 per cent of the time? We are a technical rescue service that does some fire fighting, not the other way around.

Thanks to all the chiefs and firefighters who contacted me about the platooning column in the August issue. Your comments and advice are great.


Brad Patton is fire chief for the Centre Wellington Volunteer Fire Rescue Department in Ontario, one of the largest volunteer departments in the province, with stations in Fergus and Elora. Contact Brad at BPatton@centrewellington.ca


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