Ivan Rich, Technical Manager at Bristol Uniforms, looks at the rigorous testing firefighter PPE has to go through before being brought to market:
Firefighter PPE is subject to rigorous testing at every stage of its development to ensure it offers good protection and meets the relevant international standards.
With the advance of technology, these tests are becoming ever more sophisticated, assisting with the development of new fabric combinations and designs, and offering vital reassurance to Fire and Rescue Services (FRSs) that they are purchasing PPE that meets requirements.
At the outset, fibres and fabrics used to create PPE are subject to a host of assessments undertaken by fibre and fabric manufacturers, including PBI Performance Products, Dupont, Hainsworth and WL Gore. All providing evidence of their particular strengths and qualities, and demonstrating their adherence to relevant standards, such as the European CEN standard for firefighting PPE, EN469.
When designing a new firefighter garment, PPE manufacturers then select samples from fabric suppliers and then carry out further testing and research into how the materials behave in combination. High quality firefighter PPE is usually made up of layers of different fabrics with unique properties. The outer layers protect against heat and flame and will neither melt nor ignite. The inner moisture barriers are micro-porous, preventing water ingress while allowing perspiration and heat to escape. Finally, another soft layer of material is often used inside the garment against the skin to ensure it is comfortable to wear.
At Bristol we use an independent UK testing centre, BTTG, to undertake a series of assessments on both composite and single layers for every new product, to ensure the final material chosen offers the desired levels of protection and comfort, and meets the requirements of international standards.
Before the majority of these tests, BTTG will wash and dry the materials five times in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. This is to check that the protective qualities of the fabric remain intact and are not diminished after cleaning.
At this stage, in addition to the principal fabric combination, all other possible components of the PPE are tested, including studs, webbings, graphics, badges and reflective tape. All are tested to see how they react to intense heat and flame, and how this might affect the performance of the PPE ensemble.
Once a new product design is created by designers in our Product Innovation Development (PID) department, and the new fabrics have been tested, full prototypes of the new garment are developed for further assessment.
These prototypes are sent back to BTTG for further testing on ergonomic performance and compatibility. For these tests, a wearer puts on the garment and undertakes a number of specific physical activities, before providing feedback on comfort, fit and ease of movement. Measurements are also taken before and after each activity to ensure compatibility with other elements of the uniform and its accessories such as helmets, hoods, gloves and boots. For example, overlaps are measured to ensure that there are no gaps leaving areas of the body vulnerable to harm.
Although not mandatory, additional manikin tests to check how garments perform under flash fire conditions, are also available. At Bristol, we often use manikin tests during new product development to help identify areas of the body where improvements in protection are required.
BTTG has undertaken manikin tests for 30 years, which comply with international standards and test clothing under full flame envelopment conditions.
Manakins have over 120 sensors distributed over the head, torso, legs, arms and hands which monitor the temperature on the surface of the manikin during a test. The flame engulfment apparatus consists of 12 burners with the manikin at the centre. For each test, a burn injury prediction is produced, indicating levels of pain, first, second and third-degree burns.
Although this test is optional, it can give a useful guide to the performance of an ensemble, particularly when all tests are carried out at the same test centre under the same conditions. Manikin testing was specified for the recent UK Collaborative PPE Framework tender process, with ensembles tested at the beginning of the process when initial designs were submitted, and then again at the end of the process once the final designs had been agreed.
Once a new product has been designed and fully tested in the laboratory, here at Bristol we like to undertake further testing in the form of user trials with selected customers. By asking firefighters to try the garments, we can gather valuable feedback on how it really feels to wear the kit on the job, and can make adjustments if required.
As demonstrated above, the testing of firefighter PPE is becoming ever more rigorous and sophisticated as we take advantage of new technologies available to us and look to further improve firefighter protection. Testing can provide a valuable benchmark to ensure products available on the market meet a certain level of protection, and can help FRSs compare options for kit they are looking to purchase for their crew. Moreover, testing also plays an essential role in the development and fine-tuning of new products to help manufacturers innovate and adapt to new challenges.
For more information on Testing Firefighter PPE visit www.bristoluniforms.com