The leadership team of the Fire, Rescue & Emergency Management (FREM) department in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, places a high priority on ensuring the safety and health of its career and volunteer personnel. As Deputy Chief Jason Irby explained, “Our most valuable asset is our people. If we find something that can help protect our people then it’s a no-brainer, and we make the investment.”
Spotsylvania County, Virginia, is a mix of suburban and rural areas covering 414 square miles, including a lake. With no incorporated towns or cities, the County is responsible for providing fire, rescue and emergency services for the entire population of more than 130,000 people. There are 11 fire stations staffed with a combination of 207 career firefighters and more than 300 volunteers, all supported by 11 administrative positions.
Changes to Protect Personnel
Taking a multi-faceted approach, the leadership team of FREM has instituted numerous changes over the past decade to help protect its people from becoming victims of an alarming national trend of cancer rates being significantly higher for firefighters than they are for most Americans—with some cities seeing as many as one out of every three firefighters being diagnosed with cancer.
Some of the most significant changes made by the leadership team to protect the health and safety of Spotsylvania County firefighters include:
Discovering DuPont™ Nomex® Nano Flex
Based on data from numerous studies and their own personal experience as veteran firefighters, Deputy Chief Irby, Captain Richards and Lieutenant Stephen Wise were fully aware that the highest absorption rates for smoke particles is the neckline and upper jaw area. They clearly saw evidence of contamination after every fire when the body wipe they used to wipe their face and neck during the decontamination procedure would turn brown.
They knew firefighters needed better barrier protection for this most vulnerable area. So when they saw new Nomex® Nano Flex for hoods on display at the DuPont™ Nomex® booth at FDIC in April 2016, they were immediately interested.
At FDIC, they learned that Nomex® Nano Flex is a highly breathable, FR material that provides up to a 4X increase in particle barrier efficiency. They also learned that hoods made with Nomex® Nano Flex are thinner and lighter weight than other FR materials, helping to make hoods more comfortable.
A decision was made to purchase two hoods made with Nomex® Nano Flex for every member of the Spotsylvania FREM training division so they could evaluate this new technology.
Putting Hoods Made with Nomex® Nano Flex to the Test
In May 2016, members of the Spotsylvania FREM training division began wearing hoods made with Nomex® Nano Flex to see how they would perform under the rigorous conditions of multiple, intense training sessions.
“As training officers, we are in IDLH—immediately dangerous to life and health—environments an average of six to eight times a day when we are conducting training sessions,” explained Captain Richards. “And, we are subjected to carcinogens during these events.”
He continued by saying, “We wanted to see what the big difference was between this and other hoods. Basically, we wanted to see what all the hype was about.”
Members of the training division quickly realized that Nomex® Nano Flex was providing them with visible, game-changing barrier protection—with the added benefit of improved thermal protection performance (TPP).
“After a training burn, I wiped off my face and neck as part of the standard decontamination procedure and the wipe was still white instead of turning brown as it always did when wearing other hoods,” said Lieutenant Wise. “The barrier protection is obvious,” he noted.
Firefighters in his training group were surprised by what they saw and made comments such as: “Man, how did you do that?” and “That’s amazing.”
To illustrate the improved TPP of hoods made with Nomex® Nano Flex, Captain Richards recalled one example when he was conducting training in a flashover simulator, which is a box measuring 24 feet by 10 feet where temperatures reach approximately 1,800°F.
“Parts of my body were extremely hot, but my face, head and ears were never uncomfortable thanks to Nomex® Nano Flex,” said Captain Richards.
“But some of the firefighters who were undergoing the training and wearing other hoods had to remove themselves from the simulator because their ears were burning,” he explained.
Lieutenant Wise provided yet another great example when he recalled, “After one training session, my hood was brown around the top edges and everyone thought my face would be burned. But the heat and flames did not penetrate the hood made with Nomex® Nano Flex so I did not suffer any burns at all.”
Based on first-hand experience, the members of the training division learned for themselves what the big difference is when hoods are made with Nomex® Nano Flex.
Changing the Future for Firefighters
Deputy Chief Irby, Captain Richards and Lieutenant Wise all have long careers in fire service and share a common belief that as leaders they have a responsibility to teach firefighters to work smarter and be safer.
They also share a common experience of witnessing the major changes that have taken place in firefighting gear during the past two decades and are optimistic about the future.
“I believe that major technology advances like Nomex® Nano Flex could save the next generation of firefighters,” said Captain Richards. “I would absolutely recommend Nomex® Nano Flex, and if I had the ability to require it for every firefighter everywhere, I would.”
As Deputy Chief Irby summed it up, “This latest technology from DuPont is proving to be great and I believe it will help change the future for firefighters. We are excited to be part of it.”
About the Firefighters Featured in this Article
Deputy Chief Jason W. Irby began as a volunteer in 1996 and has been a career firefighter with Spotsylvania County FREM since 2001. He was promoted through the ranks and is currently in charge of training, emergency management, emergency medical services (EMS), the fire marshal’s office and the administrative staff.
Captain Raymond Richards, Sr., began as a volunteer in 1994 and joined Spotsylvania County FREM as a career firefighter in 2004. He has worked as an instructor in the training division since 2015.
Lieutenant Stephen Wise began his career in EMS, ski patrol and wilderness survival in the early 1980s; became a firefighter in 1995; and joined the Spotsylvania County FREM full-time in 1999. He has been working in the training division since 2011 and has been teaching courses for volunteer firefighters at evening academies for the past 15 years.