Santa Clara County Fire Department

Protective Clothing

Structural Turnouts

FF/E Paige Russell models structural turnouts. Also referred to as "Bunker Gear", this is the usual protective clothing worn by a firefighter when fighting structural (building) fires, or performing rescues. Turnouts are so named because when not in use, they are kept ready to don quickly by 'turning out' the pants over the boots. This way, the firefighter simply steps into the boots and pulls the pants up. Firefighters are typically expected to be able to don all of their equipment is about one minute. The heavily insulated turnouts can be uncomfortably hot to wear, but keep the extreme temperatures of a fire away from the firefighter's body. Structural turnouts will fail at approximately 1200°F (650°C), so even when protected with all of this clothing it is important to stay low.

Turnouts consist of a coat, pants and suspenders, leather or rubber waterproof boots, a hood, a strong helmet with neck and eye protection, gloves and an SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus). When fully dressed, a firefighter will be wearing about 70lbs (32kg) of gear, not including any additional tools being carried.

This department has a policy that turnouts are always left in the apparatus bay, and never taken into the living quarters section of the firehouse. This is due to the possibility that, even after being cleaned, they may still be contaminated with trace amounts of carcinogens or other toxins that a firefighter should not be continuously exposed to.

turnout 1 Nomex hood.
Cotton t-shirt with department logo small on the chest and large on the back.
Suspenders with retroflective striping, connecting to the pants at eight points. Some firefighters now have pants with a wide belt that don't require suspenders.
Insulated pants with retroflective striping. They are held closed with velcro and spring hooks. They are reenforced with leather at the knees and hem, and have two large side pockets and one smaller rear pocket. They are composed of an inner insulation layer and an outer protective shell layer.
Steel toed insulated rubber or leather (shown here) boots, with Vibram soles. These boots have handles at their tops to help pull them on, and come up to just below the knees.
turnout 2 Helmet, with goggles and department logo. These helmets have a velcro/buckle chinstrap, adjustable headband, retroflective stickers and a protective cloth flap that hangs over the collar, further protecting the neck and preventing embers from falling down the collar. In this photo, the firefighter has an auxilliary flashlight held on with a rubber strap, and a wooden door wedge tucked into that strap for quick access.
Goggles, attached to helmet. Used for eye protection when not wearing breathing apparatus.
Radio with clip-on microphone. These radios are waterproof and intrinsically safe (non-sparking) for use in explosive atmospheres if necessary.
Glove strap, used to hold gloves for easy access when not being worn.
10  Flashlight. Department jackets have custom loops to hold the flashlights at center-chest. These flashlights are waterproof and intrinsically safe.
11  Insulated leather gloves.
12  Insulated coat with retroflective striping. Oversized pockets hold the radio, gloves, a hose strap, etc. The jacket is held closed with velcro and spring hooks, which are protected by the large front flap, and has a high velcro closed collar to protect the neck. The coat is reinforced at the shoulders, elbows and hem.

turnout 3 13  Positive-pressure mask with speaker module. Positive pressure means that air is always flowing, whether the wearer is inhaling or not. This keeps contaminants from entering past the seal at the sides. The speaker module electronically amplifies the wearer's voice, and can be connected directly to the radio so that no handheld microphone is necessary.
14  Respirator. This twist-locks onto the front of the mask, and can be clipped to the belt when the firefighter wants to keep the mask on but does not need to be breathing bottled air.
15  Air-line and pressure gauge. On this type of SCBA, there are two air gauges: one at the bottom of the tank in back (for checking the pressure when the tank isn't being worn), and one in front, which glows in the dark. This department uses Scott SCBA's.
16  PASS device. Current issue is an integrated PASS/SCBA, which activates automatically when the air supply is turned on.
17  Belt clip for the respirator when it isn't attached to the mask.
18  Mask bag. This keeps the mask close by, clean and protected when not being worn.
turnout 4 19  Name label on back of helmet.
20  Helmet shroud. A layer of cloth to protect the back of the neck and keep things from falling down the collar.
21  Department Identification.
22  SCBA Harness, comprised of shoulder and waist straps, air bottle and backpack frame. The bottle is quick-swappable, because at a working fire a firefighter often goes through multiple bottles.
24  Main supply valve and pressure gauge.
24  Name label.

The coat and pants are insulated and reenforced. They are made out of a fire-resistant fabric called PBI (other materials like Nomex are also used, but not by the makers of this department's gear). They have retroflective stripes to make them reflect when a light is pointed at them, so that they can be better seen in the dark, as well as glow-in-the-dark patches. They also have the firefighter's name and department printed on the back, like a football player, to help identify them, since when everyone is suited up and wearing masks, it is difficult to tell who is who. They are also equipped with several large pockets for holding gloves, tools, radios, etc. Tan colored for firefighters, the Chief's turnouts are white to make them easier to spot on the fireground. Some departments use black turnouts, but these are not preferred by County Fire because it is difficult to see when they become contaminated.

Why do firefighters wear red suspenders?

To hold their pants up.

Rubber (shown here) or leather waterproof steel-toed boots protect the firefighter's feet. The rubber boots are usually stored within the 'turned out' pants so that they can be quickly donned, hence the term "turnouts".

pants and boots

A fire-retardant hood covers the firefighter's head and neck, protecting ears and other parts that would be exposed under a helmet. When properly worn, no part of the firefighter's skin is exposed or unprotected.

Name labels are important for several reasons. Besides identifying the equipment's department and owner, it is necessary on the fireground, because with everyone suited up and wearing a mask, it is almost impossible to recognize or identify someone without reading their name.

Helmets are color coded, so that the wearer can be quickly identified at a fire scene. For this department, the following color codes are used:

Helmet Color Coding
helmet Yellow:      Firefighter/Paramedic
Black: Volunteer Firefighter
Red: Captain
White: Chief (Battalion or District)
Blue: contract EMT/Paramedic

The Santa Clara County Fire Department has both a fully staffed full-time firefighter force and a supplementary volunteer force. This is why there are two different code colors for firefighter's helmets. In addition, tape stripes are added to the helmets of new recruits without much experience, so that they can quickly be identified on the fireground. Helmets are issued with pull-down protective goggles, because the flip-down eyeshields formerly used didn't provide sufficient protection from debris and splashing coming from below. The helmets are fitted with flexible magnetic unit designators, so that when a firefighter is assigned to a particular engine or truck, they stick the magnet with that rig's ID on the helmet's sides at the beginning of their shift, for example "E1", "R3" "T5", etc. The current helmet model in use is the Bullard Firedome helmet.


Special Operations Task Force members also have a special helmet that they can wear during search and rescue operations. Current issue is Pacific Helmets model R3K. Modelled by Captain Gil Smith, note that these rescue helmets are set up with both goggles and a hands-free light, with the battery pack at the back.

helmet painting
from the collection of Jim Ackley

County Fire was an early adopter of brightly colored helmets and coat striping for enhanced visibility. From a 15 October 1958 newspaper article:

"Firemen Turning Yellow --- For Safety

County firemen are changing their colors. The addition of yellow striping to uniforms and use of the same hue for helmets is being done not because firemen are tired of the drab black of the outfits, but as a safety measure.

The idea is that the all-black uniforms are hard to see when the firefighters are enveloped in the thick smoke which accompanies many fires. The new bright yellow headgear and striping will make it easier to spot a fireman should he become overcome or injured during a fire.

The safety measure, the idea of Asst. Fire Chief Fred Luhring, apparently is unique with this department.

The yellow striping will run across the back of the jacket and down both sleeves. Helmets will be spray painted.

Complete re-outfitting of the department's 92 men is expected to be finished by the end of this week.

(photo caption:) Modeling one of the newly-painted helmets and refitted jackets is firefighter Louis Bias, while Captain Robert Basile completes helmet spray painting.

Firefighting gloves are well insulated, but don't flex very well, being double layered. For rescues (such as vehicle extrication), or take-up (rolling hose after a fire), where heat and flame isn't a concern, a pair of lighter weight, more flexible rescue or single layer wildland gloves can be worn.

SCBA gear consists of a high-pressure air tank, a mask, and a PASS (Personal Alert Safety System) device. Unlike underwater SCUBA gear, these tanks are worn with the regulator valve facing down, not up, in order to protect it from being bashed while the wearer is working in a tight area, or crawling along a floor. Also unlike SCUBA gear, the firefighter's mask covers the entire face, with no mouthpiece. This mask uses a positive pressure flow, not the on-demand flow that underwater gear uses. This means that air is always being pushed into the mask as the firefighter breaths, keeping the pressure inside the mask slightly higher than the outside air pressure. This ensures that any gaps in the mask won't allow smoke or toxic gasses inside. The air tanks carried by the Santa Clara County Fire Department are 4500psi (650KPa) high pressure fiberglass-wrapped aluminum tanks, which will, under optimum conditions, provide 45 minutes of air. In reality, they supply 15-30 minutes, depending upon how hard the firefighter is working and exercising. Previous issue is the Interspiro Spiromatic. County Fire was the first major department to use this new model, and worked with the manufacturer to help improve and debug it. The department switched to Scott SCBA's in 2008. These new SCBAs have "buddy breathing" hoses, which allow two or more firefighters to share one air bottle, in an emergency. They also have an electronic microphone/amplifier/speaker, which allows the wearer to be better heard when wearing the mask, and also allows a radio to be plugged into the mask's microphone. The hazmat SCBA bottles are larger (and heavier), and can provide up to 60 minutes of air (although in reality this is more likely 20-40 minutes.)

APR mask

An APR (Air Purifying Respirator) Mask (shown here modeled by FF/E Andrew Kim) is worn when conditions are not so severe as to require full SCBA, which is much heavier to wear. Unlike SCBAs, APR masks have no tanks or hoses. APR masks are used as particle filters, but since they do not supply air, they are only used after the atmosphere has been tested as containing enough oxygen (O2), and a minimum of carbon monoxide (CO), to safely breath. This is usually after a fire, during the salvage and overhaul phase. Usually worn with a particle filter, these masks can also be used with a special cartridge for protection against Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) agents.

Now that the department has switched from Interspiro to Scott SCBA's, the same mask can be used with both air bottles and with particle filters. This means one less piece of equipment to have to carry around and maintain.

Relative Effectiveness of Mask Protection
no mask 1
paper mask 10
APR 100
SCBA 10,000

As the chart shows, SCBAs are by far the most effective protection, and would be worn under all conditions if they didn't weigh so much.

The PASS (Personal Alert Safety System) device, also known as a PAD (Personal Alert Device), is worn by firefighters in case they get injured or knocked unconscious. Once activated, the PASS device will set off a loud alarm and flashing light if it senses that the firefighter is completely motionless for some period of time, (around 30 seconds). This helps others locate and rescue the downed firefighter. It can also be manually activated by a firefighter in trouble to summon aid. These devices are integrated into the SCBA pack, and turn on automatically when the breathing air is turned on. Some models are equipped with radios to automatically broadcast a distress call as well.

A rechargable flashlight is usually clipped to a hook on the front of the coat. Often, an additional smaller backup flashlight is mounted to the brim of the helmet, or is kept in a pocket. Unlike household flashlights, the ones used by firefighters are specially built and tested to be intrinsically safe in explosive atmospheres. Switching the light on or off, or having a hot bulb burst will not ignite vapors that may be in the air. Firefighter flashlights usually have a narrow, focused beam, to help cut through heavy smoke. Even so, at night additional truck-powered floodlights are set up, because flashlights rarely provide as much light as could be desired. Current issue is Streamlight Survivor.

Some firefighters also wear a tool belt (sometimes referred to as a "trucker belt" to tuck additional tools into, such as pry bars or axes.

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