Firefighters liken turnout gear - the protective coats and pants worn to a fire - to the bulletproof vests worn by their public safety counterparts on the police force.
"Fires are so unpredictable," Wauwatosa Fire Deputy Chief Bill Rice said. "Turnout gear allows us to go into a dangerous environment and prevent against burn injuries and survive a certain amount of heat."
Because of the importance of the uniforms, each Fire Department gets quite specific in the features they want included, he said. Therefore, Rice wasn't sure a newly formed purchasing consortium of departments in southeastern Wisconsin could come to terms on one set of turnout gear for everyone.
Not only were the 22 departments able to agree, they opened the bids last week and are having the finalist firms make samples for one firefighter from Tosa, North Shore, Waukesha and Racine to put to the test. They will wear the new gear on calls, then all the testers will gather at the Tosa fire training facility to see how the apparel works out when performing tasks like pulling hose, getting in and out of rigs and entering a live fire.
The idea is to save money by making a bulk purchase. Typically, one set of turnout gear costs about $1,800, but Rice anticipated that number could come down a couple of hundred dollars. The group plans to purchase about 200 sets of gear annually for five years. Some departments may only order two or three over that period, while Tosa has enough grant money to buy 80 sets this year, Rice said.
This is the first test of the consortium's purchasing power, but if it proves successful Rice foresees looking at equipment like hoses and fire suppression foam.
"There's a lot of people in fire service that say we do so much alike, we should be doing even more," Rice said.
For many years, fire departments wanted their own turf and everyone thought they had the superior operations. That philosophy has flipped and fire officials want to work together where possible, he said.
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