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When a firefighter responded to a fire call 100 years ago, he wore whatever he had on at the time.

When today's firefighter heads out to a fire, he outfits himself from head to toe in specialized gear made of space-age materials.From the helmet on his head to the boots on his feet to the coat, bunker pants, gloves, breathing apparatus and tools in between, the firefighter of 1990 carries about 68 pounds of gear - a lot of weight, but he wouldn't want to leave home (or in this case, the fire house) without it.

While the material used for firefighters' clothing has generally gotten more lightweight over the years, the helmet used by Greensboro Fire Department has gotten heavier, the result of stronger safety measures.

``The old helmets were made of polycarbonate plastic and weighed about a pound,' said assistant fire chief Brad Cox. Because of Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements, the latest models, which are Lexan injected and weigh 36 ounces, have better shock resistance.

``They have a two-piece construction, an outer and inner shell,' Cox explained. ``If you're struck, most of the damage will be to the outer shell; the inner shell protects the head.'

Since 1977, helmets have also been equipped with a shield, which protects the face and eyes from breaking glass, debris and heat. The shield can be flipped up or down as needed.

Some fire departments use hoods in addition to helmets, but the Greensboro Fire Department isn't one of them.

``There are two schools of thought on hoods,' said Cox. ``(Without a hood) everything is covered up except the top of your neck and your ears. When you go into a fire, you usually can't see your hand in front of your face. You find the fire by feeling for warmth. If you've got a hood on, you may penetrate too deeply, and you could be injured or overcome.'

``You also need to hear as well as you can,' pointed out fire chief Frank Jones.

Although the materials used in firefighters' clothing are more lightweight than the old materials, they offer greater protection, said Jones. But they're still not light enough to suit the firefighters.

``They're still cumbersome and hot in summer,' said Jones. ``We're required to wear them at all times now when responding to an incident.'

Until about two years ago, coats and bunker pants were made entirely of a flame-resistant material called Nomex. Today Nomex is still used for the outside of the garments, but they're also lined with Gore-Tex, which offers greater flame resistance and which breathes better.

Firefighters' gloves can be made of various materials, but most include Nomex in some form.

``We look for whatever is certified by OSHA,' said Cox. ``We have used leather. Years ago we used rubber, but if you grabbed something hot, they would melt.'

Today's gloves have wrist bands that extend up the wrist to prevent burns in that area. Further protection is provided by a ringlet of fireproof material within the coat sleeve.

Boots are made of rubber with steel insoles and toes to protect feet from falling objects.

The heaviest piece of equipment a firefighter must carry is the 29 1/2-pound air tank on his back. The self-contained breathing apparatus comes with a 30-minute tank of air, but because of the extreme conditions under which firefighters operate, they commonly get 12 to 18 minutes per tank.

The breathing apparatus has been improved in recent years.

``The breathing equipment has changed from demand pressure to positive pressure,' explained Jones. ``There's positive pressure in the face mask at all times. Before, you received it as you breathed it. If there was a leak in the mask, you could breathe in air from the outside' - a dangerous possibility when working in a smoke-filled room.

In addition to the protective clothing they wear, today's firefighters carry tools to help them do their job - flashlights, wrenches and screwdrivers. One traditional tool they no longer carry is an ax. The old standby tool been replaced by a power saw.

``We learned from Hurricane Hugo that we need to carry chain saws now,' said Jones. ``We learned from other cities where trees fell on the streets and (fire) apparatus got caught and had trouble answering calls. We're in the process of buying chain saws.'

Another essential piece of equipment which is different in its modern form is the hose. In the past, hoses were 100 percent cotton jacketed and rubber lined, a composition which required them to be hung up and dried after every use.

``In the mid-1980s we started replacing the hose with 100 percent synthetic hose. It can be reloaded when it's wet,' said Cox. ``We also went to a larger diameter hose. In the past we used 2 1/2- to 3-inch hoses - 'spaghetti in the street.' Now we use four-inch hoses. It takes the guesswork out of the job of how many lines to lay.'

In recent years, the need to cope with hazardous material spills has led to the development of high-tech ``space suits' designed to protect firefighters from dangerous toxic fumes and liquids.

The hazardous materials gear consists of a viton / butyl rubber completely encapsulated suit. Inside the airtight, pressurized suit is everything the firefighter needs to survive in a hazardous situation, including his breathing apparatus.

``That suit is for chemical leaks or toxic materials,' said Jones. ``If you're dealing with flammable materials, you've got an outer suit over an inner suit. It's called a 'splash-flash' suit because in a flash fire, it can withstand temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees. It makes a difference.'

What does it feel like to wear a ``space suit'?

``It's uncomfortable when it's hot, but you really feel pretty safe,' said Capt. Dale Combs of the hazardous materials unit at Station 16 on Meadowood Road. ``You've got a half hour working time in there without being worried about running out of air. And with your radio set, you're not in there by yourself. You don't have to have hand signals.'

Firefighters exposed to toxic chemicals and hazardous materials must go through a decontamination process afterward.

``If you're exposed to a chemical and you don't decontaminate, everyone you come in contact with is exposed,' said Jones.

The nature of the decontamination process depends on the chemical with which the firefighters are in contact. Some decontamination can be done at the scene of the spill; some must be done at a hospital.

A new wrinkle in the area of hazardous materials gear is the fact that some suits must be disposed of after being exposed to certain toxic products.

``They cost $4,000 per suit,' said Cox. ``Sometimes we charge user fees to maintain the equipment, or we charge the (company) responsible for the leak. We may have to seal the suit in a drum and bury it. So far that hasn't happened to us.'

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