SINGAPORE - If you're in the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) Hazardous Materials (HazMat) team, it might feel like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders.
Because their suits can weigh between 5kg and 17.5kg.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to try on a Radiation Protection Suit - a lead-infused suit used in combating radiation in industrial accidents.
A HazMat officer can put on the entire ensemble single-handedly within 10 minutes. I'm ashamed to say I needed two assistants and more than 15 minutes - excluding the breathing apparatus (BA) and helmet.
The thick material is not permeable and I started sweating after putting it on. My discomfort doubled once the BA was in place.
The BA consisted of a face mask fitted to a heavy oxygen tank on my back. It was self-contained and completely shuts out all external gases.
Breathing through the BA was nerve-wrecking. My breath came out in short, sharp gasps and I felt like there was insufficient air.
SCDF officers learn how to control their breathing, and have to pass a breathing proficiency test.
A trained SCDF officer can last about 45 minutes in a BA, but someone like me would deplete the air supply within 30 minutes.
Coupled with the stifling heat and the weight of the suit, my breathing became laboured and I felt like I was on the verge of hyperventilating.
To calm myself down, I tried to take a short walk. But the suit impeded my movement and I felt very clumsy.
To make matters worse, my sense of hearing was deadened by the mask.
I could barely fend for myself, let alone take part in SCDF operations.
The Chemical Protective Suit (Total Encapsulated Type) is no better.
While it was lighter than the radiation suit, it was completely sealed up and cut me off from the outside world.
It was a humbling experience and my respect for the SCDF has increased tenfold. Our men and women who are able to wear these suits and respond to emergencies deserve our utmost gratitude and respect.
NBC PROTECTIVE SUIT (NUCLEAR, BIOLOGICAL, CHEMICAL)
A basic suit first responders wear to an accident. It provides moderate protection against all threats. Protects against direct contact with and contamination by radioactive, biological or chemical substances. Designed to be worn for extended periods to allow the wearer to function while under threat of or under actual nuclear, biological or chemical attack.
LIGHTWEIGHT DECONTAMINATION SUIT (LDS)
Used by SCDF personnel to decontaminate casualties under a water shower. Protects wearer in decontamination operations in NBC or HazMat incidences. Provides 24 hours of protection in liquid and vapour-hazard areas. Allows wearer to respond to radiological and industrial hazards.
CHEMICAL PROTECTION SUIT (CONFINED SPACE OPERATION)
Used in incidents with hazardous chemicals in confined spaces, where the use of a fully encapsulated suit may be difficult. Resistant to acid, bases, alcohols, aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons and hydrocarbon derivatives. Also tested against known chemical warfare agents. Integrated ventilation distributes air around the wearer.
CHEMICAL PROTECTIVE SUIT (TOTAL ENCAPSULATED TYPE)
Protects wearer from hazardous chemicals in solid, liquid, gas and/or vapour form. The suit has been tested against known chemical warfare agents like distilled mustard, sarin, soman, tabun, lewisite and VX.
RADIATION PROTECTION SUIT
A personal protective equipment designed to protect the wearer from multiple hazards, especially Ionising Radiation.
The suit is a one-piece coverall with an integrated hood adaptable to the current SCDF-issued NBC facemask. Integrated feet covers over which normal rescue boots or fire retardant boots may be worn. Constructed from nanotechnology engineered fabric Continuous wear time in a contaminated environment is a maximum of 6 hours.
The suit is easy to put on, with a front single zipper and does not require securing of any waist cords A thumb elastic loop at the end of each cuff.
This article was first published on August 4, 2014.
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