Technology now allows firefighters to see in the dark, to carry lighter equipment and to send signals if they become trapped.
But because the newer technology is so expensive, some fire departments are left with just hoses and water to battle blazes.
"There's a lot of talk about thermal imaging cameras, but they're an expensive item," said George Burke, spokesman for the Washington-based International Assn. of Fire Fighters.
"The bottom line is fire departments need to be well staffed, well trained and well equipped in order to be most effective," Burke said. "And effectiveness means saving lives and saving property."
More than 1 million people in the United States risk their lives each day as professional or volunteer firefighters. An estimated 100 of them die in the line of duty each year. In December alone, six firefighters were killed in a warehouse blaze in Worcester, Mass., three died trying to rescue children in a fire in Keokuk, Iowa, and a fire chief perished in a Kansas City, Mo., paper warehouse blaze.
But at no other time have advances been greater in equipment to protect them and make their jobs safer.
"The technology is emerging, and it continues to emerge," said Bill Troup, a fire program specialist with the U.S. Fire Administration in Washington.
In particular, many firefighters can now wear an encapsulated ensemble of fireproof gear, along with lined helmets that absorb shock and hoods that protect exposed head and neck parts.
There's also a Personal Assisted Safety Signal, or PASS, device that is attached to the firefighter. The PASS will emit a loud signal if the firefighter gets trapped or becomes endangered. Older versions required firefighters to sound the device themselves. Newer models sound a 110-decibel alarm if a firefighter remains motionless for 25 seconds.
Instead of the traditional uniforms that could weigh 40 to 60 pounds, lighter-weight air bottles and materials have lightened firefighters' loads, decreasing their physical stress.
Perhaps the best advance in fire equipment in the last 25 years--and the most expensive--is the thermal imaging camera. The apparatus, which can cost up to $25,000, is used to distinguish items of various temperatures in a smoke-filled room. Firefighters can make out a human body through thick smoke or can home in on fire "hot spots" without having to tear entire structures apart.
Older models were mounted on helmets; newer versions are hand held, adding flexibility to searches.
Global Positioning Systems allow dispatchers to send out fire companies nearest to a blaze. In some cases, the systems have been mounted on fire trucks to assist medical helicopters in locating emergency sites.
Other advances include fiber-optic ropes, which contain tiny lights to help firefighters retrace their way out of smoke-filled structures, and compressed air foam, a fire retardant that increases the surface area of water, helping to extinguish fires three to five times more quickly.
Despite their capabilities, many fire departments say strict budget constraints prevent them from taking advantage of most new technology. Thermal imaging cameras, for example, range from $18,000 to $25,000 each. Air bottles cost $3,000 each, a suit of protective clothing runs between $1,300 and $1,000, and a single PASS device sells for $125.
"If you add that up for every firefighter, you're talking about a tremendous amount of money," said Capt. Hugh Duffy of the Boston Fire Department, each of whose 22 thermal imaging cameras was donated.
Fire departments traditionally have not benefited from federal funding for equipment. Two bills in Congress would change that, including one by Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) to allocate $5 billion over five years to help fire departments buy equipment.
On the state level, Rep. John Binienda of Worcester suggested in the days after the fatal fire in his city that a lottery scratch ticket be sold, with proceeds going to buy fire equipment.
Rather than wait for government help, fire departments across the country are holding their own fund-raisers. In Worcester, for example, proceeds from the annual Fireman's Ball went to defray the cost of thermal cameras. And in Sterling Heights, Mich., the firefighters' union raffled a red Harley Davidson motorcycle. It brought in $18,000--enough for Sterling's first thermal camera.
"It's a big chunk of money," said Gus Debeaussaert, a Sterling firefighter who said the department uses the camera often. "I don't think the general public realizes how important these are and how much faster we can get into a building when we can see what we are doing."