As we learn more about the health risks associated with firefighting, Joint Managing Director of Bristol Uniforms, Roger Startin, explores the important role of specialist PPE design in protecting firefighters against both immediate and long-term dangers:
In recent years, specialist firefighter PPE design has made great strides, taking full advantage of advances in fabric and fibre technology. Today, firefighter PPE can offer protection from a myriad of dangers from heat, flame and flash overs, to water ingress and blood borne pathogens. However, PPE designers and manufacturers will always be looking to innovate and improve in response emerging research and new dangers faced by the modern world.
As an industry, we have learned a great deal about the issue of heat stress, which poses a significant threat to firefighters across the world. Caused by a rise in core body temperature, heat stress increases muscular fatigue, interferes with cognitive function, and causes cardiovascular strain. Its complications include serious loss of balance and co-ordination, extreme confusion, cardiac arrest and even death. Sadly, more firefighters die in the line of duty from cardiac arrest than from any other cause.
Historically, materials that protect against external heat and flame have been hot and heavy, preventing burns but trapping body heat and moisture. We now know that whilst it is essential for firefighter PPE to prevent transmission of fire and heat through the garment, it is also crucial to allow internal heat and moisture to escape, to keep the body cool and dry.
As a result, PPE designers, manufacturers and their suppliers, have a vital role to play in developing protective clothing that keeps the body as cool as possible. For us, the fight against heat stress is ongoing. Whilst we have succeeded in devising solutions to safeguard against heat stress, it continues to be a key focus in the development of new products and technologies.
Innovations from leading fibre and fabric manufacturers, such as WL Gore, Hainsworth, PBI Performance Products and DuPont, have helped PPE manufacturers to produce multi-layered garments that protect from inside and out. A select combination of fabrics can offer resistance to fire, increased breathability, control of moisture, and a lighter weight – all of which help to reduce the occurrence of heat stress.
Along with fabric technology, the ergonomics and style of a garment can play a crucial role in contributing to a firefighters’ safety and minimising heat stress. A firefighter’s work is often very physical in a hot and hostile environment. Protective clothing that is easy to move in will make the role less strenuous, and reduce the build-up of body heat and sweat.
At Bristol, our flagship XFlex structural firefighting range was the first to feature a ‘spiral cut’ design. This means that none of the seams of the garment are straight, but instead follow the body’s curves and contours and allow much more movement and flexibility. The XFlex design also features shoulder shaping and under arm gussets, which allow full rotational arm movement, and ergonomic articulated elbows and knees.
Simultaneously, whilst creating designs to reduce heat stress, PPE designers are learning more about an additional health threat to combat. There are worryingly high rates of cancer diagnoses and deaths amongst firefighters, which have been linked to exposure to smoke particles. Research suggests that exposure via the skin could be just as dangerous as inhalation. This has immediately presented a new challenge for the industry: to create PPE that acts as a barrier to toxins and potentially harmful particles, whilst ensuring the body stays cool and dry.
Studies have shown that the neck and jaw areas are most vulnerable to smoke particle exposure, and that protective hoods are usually the most penetrable part of a firefighter’s kit. In response, we have developed a revolutionary new Particulate Protection Hood, specifically designed to filter harmful smoke particles. Worn under the helmet and collar, it covers the vulnerable neck and jawline areas, and is proven to be 99.8% efficient at preventing particle exposure. The design features the innovative Nomex NanoFlex particulate barrier from Dupont, which has been specifically developed to prevent contamination from potentially harmful particles. At the same time, the hood is lightweight, soft and breathable, allowing heat and moisture to escape, thereby reducing the risk of heat stress.
Along with these particle-blocking garments for vulnerable areas, other practices such as the swift removal and cleaning of contaminated of PPE following a fire-related incident, have also been highlighted as a practical means of reducing the risk of carcinogens entering the body. When designing garments, PPE designers must be mindful that in the future, PPE is likely to be cleaned more frequently than ever before, so must also be robust enough to withstand multiple washes.
Minimising health risks and helping firefighters to do their job effectively and safely, is at the heart of everything we do as PPE designers and manufacturers. We have come a very long way over the past 60 years, and I’m sure that firefighter PPE, and the specialist fabrics used to make it, will continue to evolve as we learn more about the new and existing dangers faced by firefighters across the globe.