Firefighter gear is heavy. Very heavy.
The gear of course needs to be, because it needs to protect firefighters from the heat and embers of structural fires. These are fires that burn at incredibly high temperatures and tear down entire buildings as they chew through the walls and use them as fuels.
Not nice stuff.
And it’s the firefighter’s job to protect you and me from those incredibly ferocious fires.
So, firefighters carry a lot of extra items in their turnout gear to help them do this job.
We did some research – and even consulted some firefighters we know – to come up with this list of the most common pieces of equipment firefighters carry on them as they do their job.
Here’s what we found out.
Most Common Firefighter Equipment in a Firefighter’s Turnout Bag
Structural firefighters will often carry rope with them to assist them with bailing out of a difficult multi-story situation. It is the central element of a ‘personal bailout system’ that many elite firefighters carry.
As part of this system, a firefighter will often carry a specialized rope with minimum tensile strength of 13.5 kN and a diameter of between 7.5mm and 9.5mm.
They will also often have with them an escape anchor to enable escape using the rope from a multi-story building.
A high quality and powerful pocket knife is a must have for a firefighter. A firefighter’s emergency pocket knife would usually contain a seat belt cutter and window punch, and have both straight and serrated edge for both push and pull cutting methods.
We also look out for a knife that comes in a sheath so it can be securely threaded into a belt for easy retrieval. There’s nothing worse than having a knife but nowhere to put it. It will usually just end up languishing in the bottom of your turnout bag or deep in one of the harder to access pockets in your turnout coat.
You can check out our list of the best emergency pocket knives for firefighters of you’re on the market for a good emergency knife. Some of those knives on that list are really handy. Some of them even have the firefighter cross emblem emblazoned on them, which makes them look super cool.
3. Wire Cutters or Vice Grips
Firefighters need something on their person that will help them to cut through wire.
There’s a well-known story of a firefighter from Memphis Tennessee who died when he was unable to disentangle himself from wires. The wires trapped him when he became caught under a drop ceiling during a structural fire incident.
Wire cutters can also be incredibly useful when attending a vehicle rescue where car passengers are trapped.
A good pair of wire cutters for firefighters should be operable with one hand, be spring loaded, not be too heavy, and be able to cut through seat belts and leathers.
4. Smoke Mask
Many structural firefighters will be equipped with high-quality smoke masks that are connected to oxygen tanks on their backs.
But other firefighters are not. Many volunteer and wildfire firefighters, for example, do not go into structural fires with confined spaces, and therefore often do not need the larger oxygen masks.
For these people, N95 medical masks are the go-to option.
An N95 medical grade mask is the standard PPE mask available to emergency services. This mask filters out 95% of particles sized 0.3 microns or higher. This includes smoke particles.
Unfortunately these masks are used up and need to be disposed regularly, so a good store of them is necessary.
All firefighters need to carry a flashlight. The trick is finding one that’s not too bulky or hard to handle while wearing gloves.
There are three main types of flashlights for firefighters that shine through smoke. These are right-angle, helmet mounted and hand-held lights.
Right-angle flashlights are worn on a turnout coat, allowing for hands-free operation of the light. You can usually turn and rotate the head of right-angle flashlights so it’s always pointing forward.
The next most common flashlight is the helmet mounted light. These are lightweight, don’t get in the way, and can be operated hands-free. The downside of these lights is that they are not usually very powerful.
The third type is the hand-held flashlight. These lights are often the most powerful, but not as handy if you need your hands for other purposes, like holding a hose!
6. Folding Wrench
A folding pocket spanner wrench is a lifesaver at times. When working with older lines with uncooperative threads, the folding wrench can save you from an embarrassing moment where you need to call-in help on your line.
A good folding wrench should be small enough to fit in a turnout coat pocket and lightweight enough that it’s not noticed while on the job. The trick is to get one that it strong but lightweight.
A spare pair of gloves in your turnout pockets can be a lifesaver. While most images of firefighters you see on the news show firefighters in thick leather gloves, the reality is a lot of a firefighter’s time is spent with the gloves off. This is because they need to do a lot of fine motor skills with their hands that are impeded by gloves.
So, firefighters are frequently taking their gloves off and putting them back on again.
A good solution is to get a pair of gloves that are tethered to the wrists so they can come on and off without being lost.
A good pair of firefighter gloves should meet NFPA 1971-2018 standards, be made of thick leather, and have Kevlar lining. The best firefighting gloves also have reinforced knuckles as the knuckles are a particularly vulnerable location for firefighters.
8. Spring Loaded Center Punch
A center punch is a device used to smash windows, and is often included in a good quality emergency pocket knife. But, most center punches are not spring-loaded. The non-spring versions require you to smash the center punch straight into the glass. This often leads to less than optimal results as it’s imprecise and often leads to spray of glass over a wide space.
Spring loaded center punches simply require the operator to hold it against the glass and press. This helps a firefighter to break glass more gently, leading to less spatter of glass around the place and less accidents overall.
9. Trauma Shears (Paramedic Scissors)
Trauma shears – probably better known as paramedic scissors – help to rapidly remove clothing from patients without causing any additional damage to the skin. Their characteristic feature is a rounded tip that can slide across skin without piercing it. But, the blade itself is incredibly sharp. In fact, trauma shears can cut through tough leather, seat belts, and even a US penny!
Firefighters are often the first responders on the scene of an accident and occasionally find injured and burnt patients in structural fires. It’s their job to be the EMT on scene, and these scissors are a central tool for the job.
10. Particulate Hoods
A firefighter particulate hood is an undergarment like a thin balaclava that sits under the helmet to protect your skin from flash flames. The hood wraps around the skin, forming an additional layer of protection. It usually also drapes down over the shoulders to protect you from getting embers in under your collar.
11. Waterproof Notebooks
This isn’t one we expected to hear when we asked around for what firefighters wear in their pockets, but it makes sense. Taking notes on the scene if often required, particularly for the lieutenant or captain at the scene who will often be required to provide a report to police and other investigators.
And it makes sense to get a heavy duty waterproof notebook. There is a lot of water flying around when fighting a fire – not to mention ash and embers. So, keeping the notebook well sealed when not in use is going to be important.
12. Gifts for Kids
We thought this was a really sweet one that we heard from a few firefighters. They noted that they’ll carry with them small gifts like matchbox firetrucks to hand out to children who are at the scene of a fire. It helps improve public relations and helps children be less scared in stressful situations.
When I was a kid, the local fire department would come around and do these sorts of public relations activities on Christmas eve. It’s a great idea that helps improve the image of the profession as a whole.
Turnout gear has a ton of stuff in it – and it weighs you down. So it’s important to choose what to carry and what not to carry. But there’s a lot of turnout gear that is incredibly important to help you do your job successfully. Some of the most important things are flashlights, multi-tools, knives and other PPE. This can save a life – yours or someone else’s.
If there’s a firefighter in your life who doesn’t have some of this gear, consider getting them one of these items as a gift! We’ve got a whole list of gifts for firefighters here if you’d like to get some more inspiration.