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The Evolution of Firefighter PPE

by Greg Preston
Evolution of Firefighter PPE

Bristol Uniforms has been a pioneer in the development and evolution of firefighter PPE for over 60 years, and today continues to provide cutting-edge protective garments to fire services in 110 countries across the world. This article explores the company’s remarkable history over more than two centuries, and its contribution to the protection of firefighters through the ages.

Bristol Uniforms started life in 1801 as Gardiner & Sons, at a time when the city of Bristol boasted a thriving clothing industry. Its founder, John Gardiner, was a small retail clothier based in the city centre, who grew the company by securing lucrative colonial trade deals. In the 1830s the company began exporting ready-made clothing to the West Indies in large barrels or ‘puncheons’, usually used to transport rum. By the early 1850s, new export opportunities were identified in Australasia.

In 1862, Sir Charles Wathen joined the business and the company became Wathen Gardiner & Co. For the next 25 years, Sir Charles vigorously pursued export markets across the British Empire, reportedly buying wool landed early in the morning from Australia and New Zealand, to transform into ready-to-wear clothes by the end of the day!

In 1899, the company moved out of the city to a brand new factory built on a greenfield site at Staple Hill. But after a disastrous fire in 1910, the entire factory had to be rebuilt, finally re-opening in 1917. The site remains the headquarters of Bristol Uniforms to this day, but had a very different outlook at the time, surrounded by green fields!

By the mid-1930s the company had diversified into manufacturing civilian uniforms to both public and private sectors. Customers during this period included the Board of Trade, water companies, bus operators and Customs & Excise. In 1937, tunics for the air force were made for the first time and the company continued to make them throughout the war.

Evolution of Firefighter PPE
Queen Mary Visits Bristol Uniforms in 1943

Close links with the military remained until the 1960s, when the company was asked to develop PPE for firefighters working at RAF airfields. In 1961 Bristol Uniforms was created by Wathen Gardiner & Co to focus on this side of the business. Bristol created the first aluminised suits, which were loosely designed around the buoyancy suits the company had developed for pilots during World War II.

By the late 1960s, new specialist materials emerged onto the market, including the first Nomex fabrics from DuPont. This enabled the development of new fire clothing, replacing the longstanding T9B woollen fire tunic with the T63: a forerunner of the modern fire suit, incorporating a serge material with a fire-retardant finish.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Bristol pioneered product development for firefighter PPE, working with the London Fire Brigade and the Home Office to develop the A19 Home Office specification: a Nomex outershell short tunic with yellow PVC wet legs. This was followed by the A26, which became the first bunker-style fire coat. Bristol’s technical staff also formed part of the working party for the first European Standard for firefighter protective clothing (EN469), introduced in 1995.

The year 2000 saw the launch of Bristol’s managed care service for cleaning and repair, which has grown significantly over the years and now plays a crucial role in the business. Bristol remains the only PPE manufacturer offering in-house managed services across the UK, operating out of two Service Centres in London and Bristol.

The turn of the century also marked further advances in fabric technology, with the introduction of revolutionary new outer shell fabrics like PBI Matrix®, and there were rapid developments in firefighter PPE design. Specialist lightweight fabrics, along with WL Gore’s high performance moisture barriers, paved the way for a new generation in lightweight PPE, which began with Bristol’s Ergotech ranges in 2003.

Over the last decade, Bristol has remained at the forefront of PPE design with the launch of many products including the ergonomic XFlex structural range, RescueFlex for USAR crews, and LayerFlex, which offers varying levels of protection to suit the diverse roles of today’s firefighters. The company has also been awarded contracts for two national procurement frameworks for firefighter PPE: the Integrated Clothing Project (now the Central PPE and Clothing Contract) in 2007, and the Collaborative Procurement Framework in 2017.

To accommodate rising demand from the UK and overseas, the last decade has seen a period of considerable expansion, with the establishment of a Central Cutting Unit and new International Distribution Centre in Yate, a custom-designed studio for our Product Innovation Department, and the expansion and reorganisation of both Managed Service Centres to increase capacity.

Looking to the future, Bristol will continue to innovate to help protect emergency crews from the many dangers they face, be that heat stress, chemical contamination or carcinogenic smoke particles. We look forward to maintaining our position as a world-leader in our field, helping to promote best practice both at home and beyond.

For further information on the history of Bristol Uniforms, take a look at the new History timeline on our website.

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