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Why Resilient Firefighters Deserve Equally Tough PPE

A real-life story

On October 9, 2019, a Texas Motel 6 went up in flames because two unattended young children were playing with a lighter. This multiple alarm fire nearly turned deadly for Spring Fire Department Captain David Paige and firefighters Forrest McCord and Blake Thompson.

The fire started around 3:45 p.m. about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Houston, Texas. When firefighters began arriving on the scene, smoke rolling out of the motel roofline was their first sign the blaze was beginning to spread through a common attic.

 “We were the second apparatus on the scene responding to a standard building fire. However, we noticed people hanging out of a window and we immediately changed our strategy,” said Paige. “We switched to search and rescue mode. We needed to do anything to save them.”

In all, over 70 firefighters from several surrounding departments battled the flames and worked together to rescue seven people and numerous pets from inside the burning motel.

Defying all odds

While searching for people trapped inside the large three-story building, the crew of Spring Fire’s Ladder 75 survived a firefighter’s worst nightmare. A flashover is an almost inescapable situation where extreme heat and gas combine to “explode” within the blink of an eye. Every firefighter knows they have slim odds of escaping a flashover. It is exceedingly rare to escape a flashover without any injuries.

When they arrived at the third floor with a water can, Thompson forced the door open to enter the room where the fire started. Within seconds, their thermal imaging camera showed the temperature flaring to almost 900 degrees Fahrenheit. The firefighters immediately dropped to their knees to stay below the smoke line. They got out in time, without sustaining any injuries.

Source: Spring Fire Dept.

“Live fire training was crucial to saving our lives, but our turnout gear ensured that moment of clarity, that allowed us to think and act fast to save ourselves,” said Thompson.

Firefighters face flashovers every time they battle a fire. They also know the limitations of their PPE in these life-threatening situations. “The face mask is the weakest link when it comes to heat resistance. But apart from my SCBA shoulder straps and back, where the tank is, I didn’t feel the heat through the gear,” Thompson added.

While it is important that flame and thermal protection are state-of-the-art, mobility and comfort are also necessary to increase a firefighter’s survival chances.

“To ensure we have the best possible protection for our firefighters, we participate in research and development on an ongoing basis,” said Spring Fire Deputy Chief Scott Schoonover. “There is nothing more important than firefighter safety.”

Spring Fire Department firefighters wear Morning Pride® bunker gear with GBX outer shell and Morning Pride® Ben 2 helmets. The proprietary Honeywell GBX synergistically combines three yarns types, a blend of Kevlar®, Nomex®, Basofil® fibers, and an innovative rip-stop twill fabric construction. This hybrid rip-stop twill weave produces the comfort and flexibility of a twill while retaining the durability of a rip-stop.

“I always go for lightweight materials, that offer both great protection and ease of movement,” said Paige. “This is one of the reasons I’ve been using Morning Pride gear for the past 20 years.”

What’s next for structural fire PPE?

Focusing on ergonomic design and reducing weight through advanced fabrics have been priorities for most gear manufacturers. But the future of safety is also about smarter and faster decision-making to save lives.

“In view of this incident, I think built-in PPE monitoring to help us see firefighters on the fire ground and get alerts whenever someone is in trouble could be a life-saving technology for us,” Paige concluded.

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Find out how new turnout gear technology is keeping other firefighters safe! 

Discover Lisa Hanover’s experience of surviving a smoke explosion thanks to advanced thermal protective gear.

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Special thanks to Captain David Paige and Firefighter Blake Thompson from Spring FD for sharing the story with us.