The History and Evolution of Firefighter Personal Protective Gear

fire / firefighting / equipment / ppe / uniform

Title: The History and Evolution of Fire-fighter Personal Protective Gear

Firefighting is being referred to a rather hazardous profession requiring particular skills and therefore equipment to efficiently and safely cope with a fire emergency. Essential part of fire-fighting equipment makes firefighter's personal protective equipment (PPE), consisting of:

  • Pants;
  • Coat;
  • Helmet;
  • Hood;
  • Boots;
  • Breathing apparatus;
  • Gloves; and
  • Personal alert safety system device known as (PASS).

The contemporary personal protective equipment considerably differs from the gear worn previously. In actual fact, there is a lack of appropriate data regarding the evolution of PPE, though rough analysis of due development is still possible. For this purpose, the first marks of fire-fighter gear dates back to the times of the first colonies on the territory of nowadays USA.

In the 1600s, fire-fighters dealt with fire, smoke and heat without using modern technology. In most cases, structures were burnt to the ground since fire-fighters fought the fires from the outside. At that, interior operations were improbable as the common day gear fire-fighters had on could not protect them from heat and flames.


Later on, in the 1730s Jacobus Turck was invented to serve as the caretaker fire helmet made of leather, with wide brim and high crown and. In 1836, Henry T. Gratacap invented a helmet resembling the counterpart fire-fighters wear today, i.e. the ‘traditional’ fire helmet.

The design consisted of reinforced dome-shaped leather helmet with brim rolling to a long back tail and a front shield. Subsequently, the firefighter's head got substantial protection from water that ran off the back of the helmet and falling materials.


While analyzing old images, we can now see fire-fighters holding the helmets in front of their faces while battling wind or intense heat from a fire. Closer to those days, Cratacap produced fire helmet of the future, and simultaneously the firefighter’s uniform also progressed. Wool enabled the protection against cold and hot environments, and therefore its use was of particular significance. In particular, fire-fighters’ long trench coat with a stiff collar and pants were made of wool. Fire-fighters conventionally wore red cotton or wool shirt under the coat, while leather boots completed their uniform.

With a progress of rubber development, fire-fighter gear benefited considerably. Namely, fire-fighters wore rubber slickers over the wool coats to ensure additional layer of protection from the heat and keep the wearer dry. Furthermore, rubber boots sustained wearer’s feet dry. The Huron (OH) Fire Division affirms the use of rubber boots bought for $10 and rubber raincoats for $12 in the mid 1930s. At that, respiratory protection for fire-fighters was minimal.

In 1825 Italian scientist Giovanni Aldini designed a heat protection mask providing fire-fighters with fresh air. However, the real applications required more effective devices. Thus, John Roberts invented a filter mask widely used in the United States and Europe. Subsequently, inventors attempted to design a helmet with a hose attached to a pump to supply fresh air. In 1863, the world evidenced the first self-contained breathing apparatus after James Braidwood joined two canvas bags with rubber.

Later developments of the fire-fighter’s personal protective equipment were associated with the terms ‘bunker gear’ and ‘turnout gear’. In the mid 1800s, and the fire-fighter’s ‘bunking gear’ was worn to respond to a fire during night-time hours.

Over the World Wars, there had been a steady progress in the development of fire-fighting personal protective equipment. Long rubber boots, long rubber trench coats, and the traditional fire helmet were common attributes. The long rubber boots covered the firefighter's leg to over the knee.

The post-World War II period marked the development of standards for firefighter personal protective equipment. Various organizations started to test and establish standards for the equipment. In the USA these endeavours have been led by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) since 1971 to ensure high quality and efficiency of protective clothing.

The NFPA (1971) standard specifies the minimum design, testing, performance, and certification requirements regarding structural fire fighting protective ensembles and ensemble elements including trousers, coats, helmets, coveralls, footwear, gloves, and interface components. The standard specifies the minimum requirements regarding the proximity fire fighting protective ensembles and ensemble elements. In addition, the standard establishes the requirements regarding single exposure wearing of protective ensembles for limited protection from terrorism agents.

Then, the committee wanted a fire-fighting to consist of three layers:

  • An outer shell that was flame resistant and would withstand temperatures of 500ºF for about five minutes;
  • A middle layer that prevented water from soaking the wearer, and
  • An inner layer that protected against the three heat transfer methods (conduction, convection, and radiation).

Other standards were applied to deal with the fire-fighters’ feet and hands. Resistance to puncture and resistance to heat made up two essential components of the standard.

In 1982 the NFPA developed a standard to ensure personal alert safety system (PASS) devices. With a help of such device, an audible alarm was sent when a firefighter remained motionless or run out of air. Furthermore, in the 1980s, fire-fighters used fire-resistive materials (Kevlar, Nomex) to ensure the outer shell of the coats and pants.

The contemporary fire-fighting personal protective equipment consists of a mix of previously developed testing and technology. The coat and pants are equipped with three layers that resemble the initial gear in accordance with NFPA standard.

SCBA provides incomparable protection due its weight, air supply secured to the firefighter's back with waist belt and shoulder straps. The today’s air bottles are made of a composite material sustaining high pressures. Personal escape ropes are joined with back harness, while handles serve as effective means to ensure a needed rescue.

According to experts, the future standards will include:

  • Increased thermal performance standards;
  • Heat sensors, and
  • Global positioning systems integrated into the SCBA to ensure better firefighter accountability.

The evolution of fire-fighting personal protective equipment throughout the years marked considerable changes in terms of security, comfort and efficiency. Hence, the contemporary fire-fighters are enough prepared and protected to deal with fire-related accidents.



Lamb, P. The Fire Helmet. Retrieved December 29, 2008 from

Lee, A., & Meyer, R. (2000, November). Escape Through Time. NOVA Online. Retrieved December 29, 2008 from

NFPA 1971: Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting


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