Firefighters and High-Visibility Vests: A Matter of Inches

By Sean W. Stumbaugh, Battalion Chief (Retired)

In his address to the Fire Department Instructors Conference in 2011, FDNY Lieutenant Ray McCormack stated, “Just before I came here I got my new Sector Vest. It’s highly reflective and it goes over your highly reflective bunker coat … I didn’t think I’d like it but it’s starting to grow on me.”

Ray’s tongue-in-cheek comment drew many laughs. When high-visibility safety vests were made a requirement in federal law (23 CFR 655.601) in 2008, the fact that we were supposed to put a highly reflective device over our highly reflective bunker gear seemed silly and redundant—and to many firefighters, it still does. Today, we’re all aware of the law; however, awareness does not always equal compliance.

I’ll admit it: The concept of donning a high-visibility vest over my PPE didn’t make sense to me at first, either. But I’ve since come to see (get it?) how valuable this thin piece of cloth can be.

Near-Misses
My point of view is heavily influenced by my experiences working in the Sacramento Valley in California. The fire district I worked for covered both California Highway 99 and Interstate 5 just south of Sacramento. After experiencing many vehicle accidents, large pile-ups involving big rigs, and hazardous materials incidents, I began to call the activities on the highways (and even some of our surface streets) the “game of inches.” Many of the mishaps that occurred could have gone much differently (better or worse) if the vehicle had moved a few inches one way or another. The difference between life, injury or death (for firefighters or civilians) is often dependent upon this game of inches.

After my retirement in 2015 one of the firefighters on my shift was struck by a vehicle on Interstate 5 and was seriously injured. When I heard about it my heart sank as I thought about him, his wife and children, and his crew and battalion chief, who were on scene when it happened.

The incident occurred while the firefighters were completely off the roadway and even well away from the right shoulder. A vehicle struck another vehicle that was slowing for the original accident, sending that car into the firefighters. If the striking vehicle could have avoided the slowing vehicle, or moved inches one way or another, the incident could have turned out differently. We don’t know if it would have been better or worse. The good part of the story is that this firefighter is back on the job. In this case, the wearing of the safety vest wasn’t necessarily a factor, but having it on certainly doesn’t hurt.

Safety Vest Compliance
Federal law says that firefighters must wear a class II high-visibility vest while operating at any roadway incident unless they are actively exposed to flames or heat (i.e., fighting fire) or are actively involved in a hazardous materials incident.

Compliance with this rule is interpreted different ways. In my department, unless we were presented with credible information alerting us to the presence of fire and/or hazardous materials, we defaulted to the known hazard: vehicle traffic. Therefore, we would don our high-visibility safety vests before responding and would remove them after arrival if we encountered a fire. Our vests were the tear-away style so we could easily and quickly remove them.

Other departments follow the opposite order, responding under the assumption that they will encounter fire. If they don’t, they don the vest after arrival. This is also a reasonable assumption; however, my concern is that it is much more difficult to get firefighters to stop to don a vest after arrival when they are presented with urgent injuries and hazards. This creates a situation where firefighters are deployed without all the safety tools available that may help them avoid tragedy.

To ensure compliance, your department’s command staff must establish clear policy directives to assist your officers in making decisions. As I noted above, some firefighters still resist the safety vest rule, despite that it should be ingrained in our culture by now. Managers must overcome such resistance by making their expectations known and enforcing them with either a stick or a carrot. However, it’s also important for command staff to demonstrate leadership by following their own rules. Command officers must wear their safety vests at all roadway incidents (unless of course they are exposed to heat/flame). Setting an example ultimately gains more respect and can enhance safety by obtaining better compliance.

Compliance with the high-visibility vest rule is particularly important during transition phases of an incident, in both daylight and night-time conditions. Incident transitions occur when we have extinguished the fire and move to the clean-up/recovery mode. Transitions can also be created by physical operational zones—for example, the physical line between the “warm” and “cold” zones at a hazmat incident. Personnel operating at a roadway hazmat incident but aren’t involved in hazmat control should be wearing a safety vest.

During such transitions, your PPE must also change to fit the new conditions. If firefighters were engaged in firefighting and not wearing their vests, and the fire has been extinguished, firefighters will need to don their vests. As they move into recovery and clean-up mode, firefighters will often remove their turnout coats and begin to rehab and cool off. Or, they will look for some dry clothing to be more comfortable during the clean-up phase. This is definitely when you want everyone to put on that vest to increase their visibility and comply with federal law.

Beyond Compliance
Compliance with federal, state and local law (policy) is a high priority for your department; liability protection and general risk management are functional requirements of every member of the team. The higher priority, however, should be the safety and health of all personnel. From the fire chief’s perspective, having strong and enforceable policies is a must. From the perspective of all department members, keeping yourself—and all your brothers and sisters—safe on every job must be a high priority.

Some will say our job is dangerous. I have heard Dave Dodson (The Art of Reading Smoke) say it this way: “Your job isn’t dangerous, but it is risky.” His point: Yes, there are dangerous situations on the job, but not all of them (or at least our exposure to them) are out of our control. As professional firefighters (paid or volunteer), we have the ability to manage risk. At times, we may have to risk our lives. But in this brave, heroic and noble profession there is no mandate to sacrifice ourselves unnecessarily. Being wise, and using all the safety tools available to us, is the right thing to do for our departments, the public, our families and ourselves.

Please, be a professional—wear your safety vest.

Lexipol’s Fire Policy Manual and Daily Training Bulletin Service provides essential policies to enhance the safety of firefighters in all areas of department operations, including a High-Visibility Safety Vests Policy. Contact us today to find out more.

Lexipol Fire

SEAN STUMBAUGH is a management services representative for Lexipol. He retired in 2015 after 32 years in the American fire service, serving as battalion chief for the Cosumnes Fire Department in Elk Grove, Calif., as well as the El Dorado Hills (Calif.) Fire Department and the Freedom (Calif.) Fire District. Sean has a master’s degree in Leadership and Disaster Preparedness from Grand Canyon University, a bachelor’s degree in Fire Science from Columbia Southern University, and an associate degree from Cabrillo College in Fire Protection Technology. In addition to his formal education, he is a Certified Fire Officer, Chief Officer, and Instructor III in the California State Fire Training certification program. Sean has taught numerous state fire training courses and has been an adjunct professor with Cosumnes River College in Sacramento.

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