Firefighter Suits – Protection, Comfort, Technology
Firefighter suits, also known as turnout gear, have come a long way in recent years. Firefighters rely on their turnout gear to protect them from heat, smoke, flames, and a variety of other potential hazards, such as hazardous and toxic chemicals. Turnout gear encompasses all of the PPE worn by a firefighter, each of which has a specific purpose. This includes gloves, trousers, helmets, hoods, boots, jackets, and anything worn beneath the top layer ensemble. The firefighter suits have evolved with not only improved materials, technology and cleaning/disinfecting processes, but also the evolving role of firefighters in society.
Whereas in years gone by firefighters were simply responsible for responding to fires, modern firefighters also react to chemical, biological, or nuclear (CBRN) incidents, as well as natural disasters. This continually expanding role means firefighters are exposed to an increasing number of risks, such as carcinogens and other toxic substances which can have both long and short-term health effects. A NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) study found that firefighters face a 9% increase in cancer diagnoses, and a 14% increase in cancer-related deaths when compared to the general population.
A further factor which increases firefighters’ exposure to harmful chemicals in recent years is the synthetic substances used in building materials, furniture, clothing etc. Asbestos is a particularly prevalent danger. When these materials combust, they can release several carcinogens, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a group of more than one hundred chemicals. Exposure to some of these chemicals can cause cancer. The NIOSH report indicated that asbestos exposure led to roughly double the number of firefighters having malignant mesothelioma, compared to the general population. To address this expanded role and evolving risks, modern gear aims to be more versatile, balancing protection and comfort to maintain firefighters’ safety, while providing them with the freedom of movement and breathability they require to do their job effectively.
The original firefighting suits consisted of simple wool jackets and trousers and sometimes PVC leggings. Wool was the obvious material to choose because of its ability to protect against heat and cold, and because of its slight water and fire resistance. This incredibly low-tech solution was still somewhat in use up until the early nineties, though of course there were numerous improvements throughout the years. Since then, the revolution in protective clothing has been increasingly rapid, as we improve our understanding of the risks of particulates and pathogens, and technology continues to improve drastically. Today’s firefighters wear clothing made from lightweight fire-resistant fabrics, specially designed to block particulate matter, while ameliorating heat stress. Firefighting suits today are comprised of three layers, each of which serves a function, all of which are necessary.
The Layers of a Firefighting Suit
This is the outermost and therefore most durable element of the ensemble, provides protection from heat, abrasions and cuts, and is a barrier against hazardous chemicals, or water.
The durability and performance of the outer layer’s fabric are determined both by its composition (the fibre blend) and its construction and weight. Modern turnout gear is made of a combination of fire-resistant fabrics such as Nomex, Aramid or Kevlar, which are both strong and lightweight in comparison to previous materials used.
This is the middle layer of the ensemble, which is designed to protect against liquids – water, toxic chemicals, and dangerous pathogens.
The moisture barrier also plays a crucial role in the breathability and insulation of the entire suit, and therefore, the overall level of comfort and protection for the wearer.
Most modern firefighter suits now employ the GORE-TEX Moisture Barrier which achieves 99.9% blocking efficiency when evaluated using the particulate blocking test.
The technology is critical to firefighter safety and well-being.
This is the innermost layer of the ensemble which provides insulation, whilst minimizing heat stress. It also wicks moisture away from the surface of the skin to maintain the wearer’s comfort during prolonged use.
Modern firefighter suits continue to use this three-layer system, though the materials have altered throughout the years. They are now so effective at insulating the wearer that they can also include an internal alarm to alert the wearer when the external temperature is becoming dangerous. Modern suits can also be used in tandem with breathing apparatuses, to further protect against particulates, smoke, and chemicals.
Now that the industry has increased knowledge of the risks to firefighters there is increased focus on this ability to balance heat and physical performance with improved mobility and stress reduction as well as maintaining durability and longevity. Another area which has been increasingly brought into focus in recent years is protection against contact with hazardous substances such as carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Also, the environmental effects and effects that persist once the gear is removed can now be considered. Hazardous substances can be deposited onto clothing. If contaminated suits are not cleaned and maintained to a sufficiently high standard this poses additional risks.
Governing bodies throughout the world place a set of standards upon firefighting suits and protective equipment which manufacturers must abide by. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in the US, and the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) in Europe. These requirements cover design, heat, flame, mechanical, chemical, comfort, and visibility.
While both groups establish a maximum service life of 10 years past the manufacture date for all PPE suits, helmets, gloves, footwear, and hoods) manufacturers project that coats and pants, for example, have a service life of 5 to 7 years with proper care and maintenance. However, this is situationally dependent as there are a huge amount of variables in the usage of the equipment and the conditions they are exposed to.
Manufacturers continue to improve their designs and produce new and innovative means to improve firefighters’ comfort and safety. Future standards may include increased thermal performance standards, as modern synthetic materials burn hotter, heat sensors, and integrated global positioning systems (GPS).
S-GARD is the leading supplier of modern, high-quality protective clothing for firefighters in German-speaking countries. S-GARD manufactures strong and durable firefighter suits so that wearers are optimally protected and can work to the best of their ability. Their range includes a wide spectrum of turnout gear, technical rescue, work at height, wildland and station wear clothing. S-GARD understands the continually evolving work fire brigades undertake and strives to be at the cutting edge of technology, exceeding standards rather than simply meeting them.
Bristol Uniforms and MSA Safety have combined their knowledge to provide top-to-toe protection to firefighters across the world, producing products which are lightweight, ergonomic, field/service durable, and provide excellent value for money. Suits come in a variety of styles suitable for structural firefighting, urban search and rescue, and wildland firefighting situations. The new Bristol X4 is made from a complex combination of layered fabrics which protect against numerous health risks while maintaining maximum movement and comfort.
FlamePro understands what it means to be responsible for both the lives of firefighters and the people they protect, providing high-quality fire protection for every industry. Fire brigades, Marine, Airports and Industrial. FlamePro’s new generation of Valiant structural suits provides a unique combination of advanced moisture barrier and clever lining which balances thermal protection and how heavy a suit feels to wear. Their 3D fabric technology transfers moisture away from the skin faster, keeping wearers cooler for longer.
Texport has reacted to changing operational tactics and requirements for firefighters with three innovative new suits, FIRE X-FLASH, FIRE RECON THL and FIRE RECON WILDLAND. The world’s leading IB-TEX is used as the outer layer of the FIRE X-FLASH which has extremely good tear strength. A GORE-TEX membrane with a particle protection function is also integrated into the suit. The FIRE RECON THL is designed to be light and extremely breathable with its exceedingly durable single-layered TFX outer layer, and the FIRE RECON WILDLAND uses the same TFX outer layer and also maintains exceptional breathability.
Innotex strives to redefine and reimagine Turnout Gear for the ever-changing and evolving requirements of fire services. Innotex offers turnout and bunker gear with exceptionally fast turnaround time. The INNOTEX GRAY range is designed to reduce the risk of carcinogenic and particulate contamination while maintaining air permeability. Their patented three-dimensional padding system attached to the AIRFLOW turnout coat is constructed from closed-cell foam and Kevlar mesh which provides excellent protection against heat stress.
Firefighter Suits – Protection, Comfort, Technology is written by David Blackbourn Contributing Editor at Marcus Media.