PPE PERFORMANCE IN ACTION
Paul Gibson, International Sales Manager at Bristol Uniforms, discusses the importance of style, fit, sizing and ergonomics when creating effective firefighter PPE:
Providing protection against the physical danger of fire and heat is of course paramount when designing PPE for firefighters. Thanks to the work of leading international fibre and fabric manufacturers, there are now several highly specialised materials available on the market offering a wide range of protective benefits. Using these fabrics in specific combinations, PPE can offer excellent protection against heat, flamelick and flashovers, whilst crucially allowing moisture to escape and keeping the body cool.
But selecting the very best protective materials is not the end of the story. The design and style of a garment also plays a crucial role in contributing to a firefighters’ safety, and in enabling crews to carry out their roles effectively.
Ergonomics and comfort
Any protective clothing, even if it consists of the very latest fire resistant materials covering the body from head to toe, is useless to a firefighter if it is so heavy and rigid that it restricts their movement, or if it makes them so hot and sweaty they are distracted from the job-in-hand. Firefighters need to crawl, run, lift and climb in very dangerous circumstances. They also need to be able to focus, think and make good decisions. As a result, their clothing has to be ergonomic to increase flexibility of movement and reduce the risk of catching or entanglement, as well as comfortable.
It’s important that PPE manufacturers undertake extensive testing and trials to ensure that garments provide optimal rotational mobility, as well as particular flexibility at the knees and elbows. Similarly, designs should be tested to ensure maximum 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.
Clearly, firefighter PPE also has to be tough and resilient. These highly specialised sets of kit are a substantial investment for any Fire & Rescue Service and have to last a number of years. Whilst it is certainly desirable to produce garments that are light and comfortable to wear, they also need to be strong, resistant to cutting and tearing, and able to withstand regular washing. Specialist styling features can also be included to help reinforce garments where they are likely to get worn, such as protective pads on knees and elbows.
PPE garments also need to be able to maintain their shape and protective qualities after washing and drying. This is likely to become even more important in the coming years, following recent research identifying a possible link between contaminated PPE and higher cancer rates among firefighters. As more studies are undertaken, it is likely that more regular washing of PPE will be recommended as a means of mitigating the potential risks. Now, more than ever, it’s crucial that PPE can withstand frequent washing, so that the life-span of the garment isn’t reduced.
Along with the very best fabric, materials and designs, it is absolutely crucial to provide garments that fit well. A suit that is too big may be too heavy, with excess material entangling in machinery. One that is too small or tight can compromise thermal protection by reducing air gaps. At Bristol, we use a comprehensive sizing procedure, and can send our own specialist teams to undertake all measuring to ensure it is carried out correctly. It is important that every single coat and trouser is made to fit a specific individual, because it is the only way to assure optimal protective performance.
With comfort and ergonomics in mind, the challenge is to create PPE that offers suitable protection for a variety of operations requiring varying levels of protection. PPE manufacturers are constantly striving to provide innovative designs that offer workable solutions. Bristol was the first PPE manufacturer to introduce a new layered approach, LayerFlex, using a set of three garments. 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, offering additional movement, comfort and flexibility.
The ever-evolving role of a firefighter has also created a need for specific clothing for use during Search and Rescue operations, such as road traffic collisions, medical emergencies or flooding, which often require extra flexibility. Bristol’s RescueFlex 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. This range is now also available with new Gore Varde fabrics, which are particularly lightweight and breathable, whilst providing a high level of protection against wind, water and flame. Crucially, this allows firefighters to work in confined spaces or in adverse conditions for longer and in more comfort.
It is also crucial that this attention to detail and design is carried through to all additional garments and accessories, to ensure that firefighters are fully protected from head to toe. Helmets, boots, hoods and gloves must fit well with jackets and trousers so that no areas of the body are exposed to harm. Again, they must be comfortable and easy to move in, enabling the firefighter to operate effectively.
Gloves in particular present a specific design challenge, where range of motion and manual dexterity are absolutely essential. Each glove in Bristol’s range has been specifically developed to suit particular preferences and to meet a number of international standards. The Bristol Leather Structural GLOVE36, for example, meets the European standard EN659:2008. It’s made from soft, flexible black leather and is shaped for fit and comfort with silicone finger and palm grips and a knitted Nomex® cuff. Independent testing has shown the glove to score exceptionally well in cut and tear resistance. Two other Structural gloves in our range are made from Hainsworth TITAN® fabrics and are anatomically shaped for fit and comfort. GLOVE49 uses TITAN® PBI 1260, whilst GLOVE53 uses TITAN® 1220 in red. Both feature silicone palms, reflective piping, knuckle protectors and knitted NOMEX® cuffs. All three sets of gloves are available in a wide range of sizes from 6 to 13 and XXS to XXL, ensuring that a good fit is available for every member of the crew.
In summary, to keep firefighters safe and assist them in carrying out their role to the best of their ability, PPE must offer a complex combination of characteristics. From top to toe, PPE has to provide maximum protection against fire and other dangerous substances, be light and flexible enough to enable movement, breathable to prevent over-heating, tough to prevent tearing, and durable to withstand regular cleaning. The size and fit must be right, and ultimately, it has to be comfortable.
For more information visit www.bristoluniforms.com