Protecting Responders From the Known and Unknown

Responders put themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis, often responding to emergencies with limited information. During the response, additional information is gathered and the evaluation of the situation continues with safety as a primary concern. One important safety aspect is ensuring that all responders are wearing the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) for the present hazard, regardless the task.

When responding to a possible terrorist or Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) incident, the response can vary for each incident.  For example, the R in CBRN stands for radiological, but implies ionizing radiation and radioactive materials that can include any solid, liquid, or gas that emits radiation.  Therefore, it is necessary toentify the hazard and protect responders and receivers accordingly.

Breathing Clean Air – Standards for PPE 

When encountering a CBRN incident, one priority is selecting the proper PPE to protect the respiratory system and prevent any contact or inhalation of the material. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) tests and certifies respirators for occupational use and has a separate CBRN test and certification for Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA), Air Purifying Respirators (APR), Powered Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPR), and Air-Purifying Escape Respirators (APER).

When selecting an SCBA, it is important to check for NFPA 1981 (Standard on Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) certification. However, the selection of an APR or PAPR is slightly more complicated.  Each filter is designed to protect against specific gases at concentrations belowLH (Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health) values.  When a responder arrives on the scene, the hazard itself may be known but not the concentration. Therefore, it is important to err on the side of caution and utilize an SCBA until all unknown factors have been determined.

Vapor-tight suits are another PPE option for entering an area with an unknown hazard. Ensembles that are certified to NFPA 1991 (Standard on Vapor-Protective Ensembles for Hazardous Materials Emergencies) provide the most protection and have been tested and certified by an independent agency.  In addition, decontamination teams and personnel supporting warm zone operations should wear clothing certified to NFPA 1992 (Standard on Liquid Splash-Protective Clothing for Hazardous Materials Emergencies) or NFPA 1994 (Standard on Protective Ensembles for First Responders to CBRN Terrorism Incidents). Whereas law enforcement personnel can select PPE that meets NIJ Standard-0116.00 (CBRN Protective Ensemble Standard for Law Enforcement).

It is important to note that various protective clothing for CBRN and hazardous materials operations are constructed from different materials. As such, manufacturers must provide test data on the performance of their various products against specific chemicals.

Finding the Right Products 

With so many considerations to analyze, it can be a daunting task to determine which equipment best meets an organization’s needs. In order to assist agencies in obtaining as much information as possible about responder equipment, the Responder Knowledge Base (RKB) was developed. The RKB is an online, integrated source of information on products, standards, certifications, grants, training, and equipment-related information that is funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

More than 80,000 people – consisting of first responders, government officials, purchasers, and planners – use the RKB website to make educated purchasing decisions. More than 8,000 products can be found by going to the “Products” page of the website and searched based on the specific capability of a product and its related information: product type, manufacturer/organization, a standard related to a specific product, or a keyword in the “Search” field.

On the Product Details page, the Knowledge Links in the right sidebar provide specific information related to each product, including: training, certifications, standards, operational assessments, publications, safety notices, and other related products. Product information is provided by the manufacturers themselves in order to ensure accuracy and completeness of information. Products that are associated with the Standardized Equipment List (SEL) – a list of product categories that can be used for events that threaten the security of the nation – also will beentified in the Knowledge Links section.

The RKB provides the support that responders need to maintain their readiness for duty. By using the RKB, well-informed equipment purchasers can help organizations prepare their resources in the best way possible.


For additional information on: The RKB website and CBRN resources, visit

Assistance for using the RKB, contact the RKB Help Desk via e-mail at or by phone at 1-877-336-2752

John Lazier

John Lazier is a Subject Matter Expert (SME) for the Responder Knowledge Base website, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency’s online source of information dedicated to First Responders. He provides perspectives on issues pertaining to Fire Protection, Hazardous Materials, and Emergency Management. He has served as a Firefighter/Fire Officer and Instructor for more than 22 years and has supported numerous U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Homeland Security responder-based projects over the last 9 years.



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