Fire escape hoods: not just for high-rise fires

Words: Catherine Levin

London Fire Brigade deployed Dräger Parat 5550 fire escape hoods in October 2018.

It is a truism that innovation can emerge from tragedy. In 1911, the fire that engulfed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City claimed the lives of 146 workers, mostly young women. Not only did the fire inspire the evolution of US fire codes, but it also captured the imagination of a young inventor living in Cleveland, Ohio. Garrett Morgan had worked in the garment industry in Cleveland and in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, he developed a prototype ‘safety hood’ to protect the wearer from toxic fumes. Within five years he had used it to rescue workers trapped after an explosion in the tunnels under Lake Eerie.

Fast forward to 2017 and in West London, 72 people were killed in a fire that ripped through Grenfell Tower. The safety hood that Garrett Morgan developed has come a long way since his original idea and had its modern equivalent been available perhaps more lives could have been saved.

Sir Martin Moore-Bick wrote, in his Phase 1 Report into the Grenfell fire, “There were no plans in place to evacuate Grenfell Tower should the need arise. I therefore recommend that all fire and rescue services be equipped with smoke hoods to assist in the evacuation of occupants through smoke-filled exit routes.”

Sir Martin’s report was published in December 2019, but London Fire Brigade had already deployed Dräger Parat 5550 fire escape hoods in October 2018. The term fire escape hood appears to be preferred by services and suppliers alike, so it is used here.

Clean, safe air for 15 minutes

Fire escape hoods can be carried by firefighters and provided to people caught in smoke-filled environments to help them to escape. The hood is worn over the head with a tight seal around the hood preventing smoke from getting in. Air comes into the hood through a filter, which removes the toxic gases found in smoke. This provides clean, safe air for 15 minutes.

Group Commander Spencer Sutcliff was two weeks into his posting as Borough Commander for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where the Grenfell Tower is located, when the fire started on the fourth floor, in the small hours of 14 June 2017. Spencer didn’t attend the fire, nor did he provide evidence at the Inquiry. After two years as Borough Commander, he moved into the Operational Policy department where he is now a Deputy Assistant Commissioner responsible for, among other things, the policy relating to fire escape hoods.

Interviewed for this article, Spencer explained that a piece of equipment like a fire escape hood doesn’t fit under just one policy as it is used in a wide range of incidents. As part of a process of learning from incidents, the equipment comes under scrutiny as much as the actions of the people who use it. “We always look at our training, our policies and our equipment. As you’d expect after an incident of the magnitude of the Grenfell Tower fire, we started looking very quickly at any possible improvements, which included available kit.”

Spencer wasn’t in the policy department when the work was undertaken to review, trial and buy the fire escape hoods that were eventually rolled out to London firefighters. He shared the thinking at the time, “We identified quite quickly after Grenfell that the fire escape hood would be a really useful piece of kit, but the process for selection and eventual deployment takes time.”

Improve survivability

Fire escape hoods have limitations in heavily contaminated smoke-filled environments, but they are, as Spencer explained, really useful as they can improve survivability. He said, “We would like to see manufacturers designing hoods that have their own integral oxygen supply, which would help in these situations.”

Balancing the need for the fire escape hood to be compact, easy to carry by the firefighter as well as easy to use by the public with the need to be useable in a wide range of toxic environments, is tricky. For example, Dräger has developed a specialist fire resistant pouch, approved to 137:2006, Type 2 standard. This allows the fire escape hood to be carried, attached to the breathing apparatus set in a choice of approved positions and exposed to many incidents without affecting the integrity of the hood inside.

London took a phased approach to rolling out fire escape hoods. They introduced them initially into 11 fire stations across London and then a month later they were rolled out to the remaining 91 stations. Every BA set has a fire escape hood attached to it; each appliance now carries a bag with extra hoods and they are also available on fire response units and aerial appliances.

Every time a hood is used, crews are asked to fill out a feedback form to understand how it performed. Crews also ask the person who used the hood about their experience as part of a post incident welfare check. At the time of writing, London crews had used 69 hoods across 35 separate incidents. The numbers aren’t huge, but they are being used on a fairly regular basis and not always in high-rise fires.

Calmer and more comfortable

“The fire escape hood gives options for the Incident Commander,” said Spencer, who went on to share a few examples of when hoods have been used by people to exit buildings through smokey corridors and stairs. In one case, he said, “The ambulance crew couldn’t give us higher praise, saying the people were completely unaffected with no smoke inhalation whatsoever. That would never have happened previously.”

Prior to the deployment of fire escape hoods, the options available to fire crews would have included trying to rescue them externally by ladders, which can be very difficult in terms of access. Otherwise, they can be brought through smokey conditions; sometimes with access to breathing apparatus used by crews. Spencer explained that this is not ideal and has its own risks – to both the person being rescued and the firefighter.

“The beauty of the fire escape hood is that we can fit it on the occupant or ideally they put it on themselves. People are anxious at first but once they put it on, they are much calmer and more comfortable. It’s a really great piece of kit.”

The brigade is also looking to use its aerial drones to deliver fire escape hoods. The brigade’s drone pilots are being trained using new procedures. Spencer explained, “The drone has the potential to carry a fire escape hood and drop it on a balcony or similar for use by an occupant. We haven’t used it at an incident yet. The drone is a great piece of kit, it brings great value and improves the situational awareness for the incident commander. It has a loudspeaker option so we can provide reassurance and direction.”

Environmental concerns

Once a fire escape hood has been deployed in an incident, it cannot be re-used. As a single use product, there are inevitably environmental concerns. The filter is the most expensive part of the hood, as MSA Safety, the manufacturer of the S-CAP fire escape hood explained, “Product safety requirements, like those for the S-CAP, often create an end of product life challenge providing users with an option for reuse or recycle. MSA is beginning to incorporate product life cycle options into their new product designs. As MSA progresses through the enhancement of their sustainability programmes, considerations will be made in designs to offer better solutions in the future.”

Asked about the sustainability of its fire rescue hoods, Dräger confirmed that the filter on the Parat 5550 fire rescue hood can be returned to them and recycled. In addition, where the product remains unopened, it has a shelf life of eight years, extendable for a further eight years where the filter is replaced. For some services this additional eight-year lifespan may actually be an important consideration where usage is relatively infrequent.

Health considerations

As well as thinking about environmental impacts, there are also health considerations. Where someone is able to leave a fire without suffering from smoke inhalation (or is exposed to a reduced amount), they will need fewer medical interventions. Understanding the extent to which there are long-term savings for the health sector – the cost of the ambulance provision as well as stress on the NHS – arising from the use of the hoods will be really useful. It is a prime candidate for a longitudinal study by an academic institution.

Each frontline Tyne and Wear FRS appliance carries two fire escape hoods.
Update RPE Framework

The National Fire Chiefs Council established a National Framework Agreement for Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) via Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service. Recently refreshed, the framework (DS314-20) now includes four suppliers of fire escape hoods. The previous version included just one supplier, Dräger Safety UK Ltd, and many fire and rescue services have now bought their Parat 5550 product.

Tyne and Wear FRS is one of those services; each frontline appliance carries two of them, ready to be used, where appropriate, by firefighters using breathing apparatus. Richie Rickaby, Area Manager for Community Safety, said that when called upon, they have proved to be a valuable piece of equipment. “Over the past 14 months, we have used the hoods on three separate occasions in residential flats across Tyne and Wear.” Two of the three incidents were in high-rise buildings.

Durham and Darlington FRS has bought 30 fire escape hoods from Dräger and has placed one on each fire appliance. Crew Manager Alan Nixon, based at Darlington Fire Station, described the first time the hoods were used at an incident, in November 2020. Demonstrating that fire escape hoods aren’t just about high-rise fires, this incident was in the basement of a three-storey building and had filled the communal stairwells with smoke.

Alan’s crew helped the resident exit the building through the smoke while wearing the hood. Alan said, “The man who was wearing the hood was quite calm, he wasn’t panicking.” While the resident wasn’t in any immediate danger, by using the hood, crews could take him out of the building much more quickly rather than waiting for the smoke to clear from the stairwell. Alan reported that his crews were really pleased with how the hood performed and were proud to be the first ones to use it in their service.

High-rise testing

Surrey Fire and Rescue Service has teamed up with its neighbours, East Sussex and West Sussex fire and rescue services, to buy their fire escape hoods outside of the NFCC framework. Group Commander Stuart Holden is the Head of Operational Policy, Assurance and Learning. He explained that when his service was looking for fire escape hoods, they wanted to review more than one product and carried out their own trials to see what suited them best. Stuart found three products and invited the manufacturers to supply the products for testing.

“We wanted to check the hood from the user end, because the easier it is to wear and the more confidence it gives them, the easier it will be on crews when rescuing people.” To do this, Stuart used non-operational volunteers from his service with operational firefighters wearing breathing apparatus. They used both simulated and toxic smoke in the tests to see how long the hoods could be worn. In the third part of the test, Stuart took crews to a high-rise building using standard breathing apparatus and simulated a rescue from the 15th floor to test how long it took to evacuate the occupant wearing a fire escape hood.

As a result of this testing process, the three services decided to buy MSA’s S-CAP fire escape hood. They have agreed to purchase c.600 units. The three services are liaising on how the hoods will be deployed on appliances in a standardised way; they have worked together on the risk assessment for use in incidents and they will jointly produce a local training package for crews to use from April.

Summarising his thoughts about the introduction of fire escape hoods, Stuart said, “It’s a tool in the box, it’s not a golden bullet, but if it helps us mitigate the effects of fire and smoke on people we rescue, then this will give them a far better chance of survival than they currently have.”

Positive response to adoption

These examples, from different fire and rescue services, show a really positive response to using fire escape hoods. With more data over time, the extent to which the hoods have improved incident response and reduced demand on the ambulance service and the NHS will emerge. Capturing more information about the user experience immediately after the incident would go a long way to assist any review. All of which will assist the manufacturers to innovate and improve the existing offer as the fire escape hood becomes an integral part of fire and rescue service equipment.