A firefighter relies heavily on what he is wearing to protect him in a fire. That the gear costs more than $11,000 is not something the firefighter think about when he puts it on. The weight, however, is a different story.
The gear weighs 75 pounds dry. It’s even heavier when wet.
Todd Wilson put on his protective uniform for the first time seven years ago, and could hardly believe the weight.
“I was training in the middle of the summer,” he said. “Guys were almost passing out.”
It consists of two layers. The outer layer is for keeping the firefighter dry. Inside that is a thermal layer meant for temperature control.
Wilson considers himself an athlete, so wearing the outfit is not something he was too worried about.
He was more concerned about the fire.
“I was a little nervous,” he said. “But once the alarm bells go off, the adrenaline kicks in.”
Wilson’s first firefighting experience was in a structure fire with flames rolling all around him. He was holding the firehose behind his sergeant, and he remembers looking around and taking in the whole experience from behind his mask.
“You feel completely protected,” he said. “When you have your gear on, you don’t think twice about going into a fire. It’s worth what it costs.”
The boots that firefighters are moving out of now are made of rubber. The department received a grant to pay for leather boots that are much more comfortable and offer better protection, according to Ivan Bolgla, the interim deputy chief. The leather boots cost about $200 a pair.
When firefighters join the department, they are handed all the protective gear. Any damaged gear is replaced immediately.
The process for regular uniforms is different. The fire department takes bids for them about every two years, Bolgla said. After the winning bidder is chosen in the fall, the uniform papers go out to all the firefighters for them to fill out.
Firefighters are given a budget of $350 each. They can choose whatever they want from the list, as long as they stay under that amount.
Wilson said he didn’t have his own uniform for almost a year because he joined the force in late summer after they were passed out.
“I borrowed from everyone else,” he said. “A shirt from someone, pants from someone else – all the guys helped.”
A dress uniform is the last purchase most firefighters make because it is not used as often. Funerals and Augusta Commission meetings are the two most common occasions, said Assistant Chief Jack O. Hanley.
Wilson said if he needed one now, he would again borrow clothing from his fellow firefighters. The idea of sharing clothing is not a big deal to them, he said; they share something more precious.
“You really trust these guys with your life,” he said. “You get really close.”