Philip Tasker, UK Sales Director at Bristol Uniforms, explores the changing role of the UK firefighters, and the need for firefighting PPE to provide protection for other emergency situations.
The role of a firefighter is ever-evolving, and today, thanks largely to better regulation and fire prevention initiatives, UK firefighters spend much less time actually fighting fires. Figures from the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) show that more than 40,000 people in the UK were rescued by firefighters from April 2015 to March 2016, but that less than 10% of these rescues took place at fire-related emergencies.
Instead, the majority of call-outs are for a wide variety of other incidents including traffic accidents, medical emergencies, flooding, chemical spills, public unrest, collapsed buildings and water rescue. These non fire-related emergencies are on the rise, with nearly 37,000 rescues carried out during the year – up 7% on the previous year and the highest figure since the FBU began collecting data.
Just as Fire and Rescue Services (FRSs) across the country are having to adapt to respond to an ever-increasing variety of emergency situations, designers and manufacturers of firefighter PPE are also faced with the challenge of adapting PPE to suit these new roles. Clearly, whilst protection against fire remains an essential element of PPE for firefighters, garments also need to be adaptable to protect firefighters in the countless other emergency situations they are likely to face.
At Bristol Uniform’s our design team is constantly striving to create new PPE solutions that successfully offer protection against fire and other likely hazards, whilst enabling the wearer to carry out the job without hindrance and in comfort. Whether performing a rescue in a flood, at the roadside, at an intense fire or in extremely cold conditions, firefighters need to maintain a comfortable body temperature and stay dry. They are also likely to need to crawl, run, and climb to carry out the job in hand. We work closely with researchers, fabric manufactures and firefighters on the ground to ensure that our PPE is highly effective, comfortable, and suitable for the many scenarios a firefighter is likely to face.
Selecting the right fabric for PPE is the first step in providing optimum protection for the environment you are operating in. Leading international fibre manufacturers such as PBI Performance Products and DuPont, and fabric manufacturers such as WL Gore and Hainsworth, have developed several highly specialised materials offering a range of benefits. Over and above resistance to fire, and used in combination, these fabrics can offer increased breathability, control of moisture, and protection against pathogens, hazardous chemicals and the elements.
Hainsworth fabrics, for example, are used to form the outer-shell of a garment, using highly specialised and lightweight fibres from DuPont (Hainsworth TITAN1220) or PBI (Hainsworth TITAN1260). These fibres crucially provide outstanding air permeability and breathability.
At Bristol, our firefighting garments combine this type of outer shell with an inner moisture barrier and liner system which draws moisture away from the skin, helping to keep the body cool and dry. WL Gore is the principal supplier of the most commonly specified moisture barriers which come in a variety of fabrics in the Gore-Tex® and Crosstech® ranges.
In a move away from the traditional approach to PPE design, and in direct response to the changing role of firefighters, Bristol was the first PPE manufacturer to introduce a new layered approach using a set of three garments. This LayerFlexTM range is particularly useful when a fire service is faced with a range of operations requiring varying levels of protection. When used in different combinations, the mid-layer coat, top coat and trousers provide the required levels of protection for structural firefighting as well as technical rescue. The options they provide ensure that a firefighter is able to wear garments to suit the role they are undertaking, rather than wearing the same structural fire clothing for all roles. For example, all three garments would be worn to attend a house fire, whereas for a road traffic accident the mid-layer coat and trouser combination would be more suitable, with the top coat removed. This serves to improve ergonomics and comfort, without the cost and inconvenience of purchasing different kits to suit a range of call-outs – not to mention saving vital time that would be wasted changing in and out of various uniforms.
In addition, innovative designs have also been developed for more specific applications. For example, Search and Rescue operations often take place once the immediate danger of flame is removed, with USAR or technical rescue teams entering enclosed and confined spaces where high temperatures and often toxic smoke are hazards. Bristol has developed a range of clothing specifically for these types of operations. RescueFlex is tear and puncture resistant and provides protection against blood-borne pathogens. It offers physical protection at high risk points such as the knees and elbows, a high level of flexibility to afford manoeuvrability in confined spaces, and is lightweight to minimize heat stress. The coat and trouser can be zipped together to maintain protection when manoeuvring and crawling.
Brand new to the RescueFlex range is our Gore® Varde jacket and trouser combination, offering significantly more comfort and flexibility for firefighters faced with technical rescue operations. These new garments, using the very latest fabrics from WL Gore, are particularly lightweight and breathable, whilst providing a high level of protection against wind, water and flame. Crucially, this will allow firefighters to work in confined spaces or in adverse conditions for longer and in more comfort. The durable waterproof and windproof qualities of the fabric, including low water pick-up and quick re-dry properties, ensure protection from the elements on the outside. At the same time, sweat is able to pass through the fabric from the inside, keeping the wearer dry and reducing the risk of heat stress. The Gore® Varde fabric is also self-extinguishing and flame retardant, protecting firefighters from the possible hazard of unexpected fire during a rescue operation, and enabling crucial escape time. Available in high-vis yellow or orange, the Gore® Varde garments also enable firefighters to work in hazardous environments without the need for any additional high-vis vests.
Above and beyond general fabric and design specifications, individual FRSs often have particular additional requirements for their PPE to help with accommodating particular tools or equipment they need to carry out their operations.
Bristol can accommodate alternative types of trouser front, leg openings and knee-pads, as well as cuff styles on fire coats. Other options include detachable linings, and knee and elbow reinforcements. Operational safety features such as integrated safety harnesses and drag rescue devices can also be specified.
Firefighter accessories such as tools, lighting and communications equipment are constantly changing and being updated to help firefighters in the line of duty. All of these have to be carried safely, requiring a selection of loops, straps, D-rings, glove hooks as well as pockets and flaps which add further to the large number of permutations which form part of the bespoke and specialised nature of PPE design.
Cleaning and Maintenance
It is also important that cleaning and maintenance of PPE keeps pace with the emergency scenarios firefighters may face. Bristol offers an in-house Managed Services option for the maintenance of its garments in the UK, which involves collecting soiled or damaged garments from FRSs around the country, transporting them to one of our two UK Service Centres for thorough cleaning, inspection and repair, before returning them to the customer within a guaranteed seven days. The Centres handle up to 3,500 items of PPE every week, with unique bar codes on each item providing a thorough record of its life-journey from the date of manufacture, the specific rolls of fabric that were used to create it, and each wash and repair. As part of the service, our Centres provide specialised cleaning for contaminated clothing that has been exposed to hazardous or toxic material, which need to be cleaned in a controlled environment. This can include anything from blood from attending a road traffic accident, to sewage from operating in contaminated flood waters, to toxic material from chemical spills.
At Bristol we design and manufacture our garments to a very high standard, and take this attention-to-detail through to cleaning and maintenance to ensure that each and every item of clothing is fully operational, clean and safe before going back out into the field.
So whilst the role of the firefighter continues to evolve, Bristol will continue to explore new ways of maximising safety and comfort in PPE, so that firefighters are protected and ready to face new challenges.
This article has been written by Philip Tasker, the UK Sales Director at Bristol Uniforms.