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Firefighters tackle a blaze wearing Hainsworth TITAN 1260.

Protecting our firefighters 30 years after King’s Cross

This year is the 30th anniversary of the King’s Cross disaster, an event which was instrumental in prompting research and development into the safety of firefighters and the PPE they wear. The events of November 18th 1987, in which 31 people including Station Officer Colin Townsley lost their lives, had far-reaching consequences not just for firefighting in the UK, but globally.

Prior to the tragedy, firefighters were routinely tackling fires wearing a heavy woollen tunic, leather boots and plastic over trousers and gloves. The kit was uncomfortable to wear and exposed the firefighter to the risk of burn injuries.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) had long been lobbying politicians on all sides to make the safety of firefighters a bigger priority. After King’s Cross, the issue swiftly moved to the top of the political agenda.

Dave Matthews, now one of the world’s foremost standards experts, was himself an FBU official at the time of the tragedy. For the past 30 years, he has been one of the principal driving forces behind ensuring firefighters around the world are afforded the best possible kit to do their job – and return home safely to their families.

Dave says: “The King’s Cross fire meant that firefighter PPE had to be addressed as an emergency.

“Until this time, firefighters were constantly running the risk of being a ‘boil in the bag’ casualty.

“Although this was a UK incident, the ramifications were on a worldwide scale, not least because so many countries operate their own underground rail systems.

“It wasn’t just firefighter PPE that moved to the top of the agenda; the following years also brought about substantial operational improvements as well as giving fire prevention a much higher profile.”

The King’s Cross tragedy was followed by the development of European Standards and, specifically, EN 469 “Protective Clothing for Firefighters” which enforced the need for garments to undergo a range of tests to ensure they provided adequate protection against radiant and convective heat. The new standard also required garments to meet stringent requirements for resistance against water penetration and tearing.

Further advances came with the introduction of EN 469:2005 and NFPA 1971:2007. This marked the first time that breathability had properly been tested and it brought to an end the use of non-breathable fabrics in turnout gear.

Firefighters in their TITAN 1260 get ready for an emergency training exercise.

Firefighters in their TITAN 1260 get ready for an emergency training exercise.

Hainsworth has been at the centre of PPE fabric innovation for more than 150 years. The company played a prominent role in the creation of European standards and, as standards become increasingly international in their scope, continues to help shape the legislation that protects the firefighter community.

We are passionate about our role as innovators and the role we play as a trusted technical partner not just with firefighters but also with their fellow emergency services, the military and industrial sector.

Dave Matthews says: “King’s Cross and the acceptance by Ministers that firefighters needed better protection changed the PPE industry. As the demand for innovation in firefighter garments became ever stronger, so new companies came into the market.

“Hainsworth has always been considered an innovator, both before and after King’s Cross. The company has the knowledge, passion, commitment to quality and ability to move with the times.

“There is a saying in the industry. If you want quantity, go to China. If you want quality, go to Hainsworth.”

Working closely with its industry partners, Hainsworth was at the forefront of fabric innovation in the aftermath of King’s Cross.

Fire crew wearing TITAN 1260 tackle an airport fire.

Fire crew wearing TITAN 1260 tackle an airport fire.

The company is probably best known for the successful development and introduction of its TITAN technology to the market – now used by firefighters around the world.

This intelligent flame retardant outer shell system increases thermal protection when a firefighter needs it most. The unique and innovative design moves and ripples when exposed to intense heat and flame, trapping insulating air within the garment – something that is known as ‘Active Air Entrapment’.

An example of our continuing innovation can be seen in the most recent addition to the TITAN family – TITAN 1260 – which complements the existing 1220 and 1250 systems by adding flexibility after flashover with the fabric remaining flexible with minimal carbonisation. This helps to ensure that the garment remains intact and does not break open after exposure to flame and cooling down.

The PBI, DuPont Nomex and DuPont Kevlar combination contains a specially developed yarn to provide a smoother fabric surface, reducing fibrillation and improving airflow to ensure maximum breathability and comfort.

Alongside the continual development of TITAN technology, Hainsworth has, more recently, introduced its EC0-DRY technology, consisting of a range of solutions – both outer shell and linings.

Until King’s Cross, felted Merino wool cloth had been used in the manufacture of firefighters’ garments. While it was undoubtedly a great fibre, it simply held too much moisture and, consequently, would become extremely heavy and wet for the wearer.

Through the use of modern techniques of textile production and finishing, we have been able to once again use Merino wool to create the ECO-DRY products.

A close up of the TITAN 1260 fabric.

A close up of the TITAN 1260 fabric.

The unique structure of wool offers distinct properties not mimicked by any other natural or man-made fibres – properties that offer many benefits to the wearer and that will not wash out or decline over time.

The revolution in firefighter PPE over the last 30 years has been staggering and it is one of the many lasting legacies of the 31 people who lost their lives on that fateful evening at King’s Cross.

It is unlikely we will see such a pace of change again in the future but, what is certain, is that there will remain a hunger for continual improvement through innovation.

A key driver for this desire for product development is the changing nature of emergency services both in the UK and globally as the services become more closely aligned and responsibilities shared.

The transformation in building design and infrastructure over the last 30 years means that largescale fires are now, thankfully, a much rarer event, while the number of fires in general has greatly reduced, largely thanks to the fire prevention campaigns that emanated from King’s Cross.

Dave Matthews says: “So many things have changed since that day in November 1987 and it is natural that the pace of change will not be as great in the future.

“However, innovation will continue. One major example of this is smart wearable technology, something the emergency services are already embracing and which is forecast to increase from a $30billion market today to $150billion by 2026.”

Research and development (R&D) involving fire services and their industry partners is ongoing. One current key area of focus is the need to look for new ways to make firefighter garments more “athletic”, something that is driven by the changing role of fire crews in an age of ever increasing interoperability.

Ultimately, innovation is only relevant if it meets the needs and demands of the end user. That is why constant dialogue and long-term partnerships are so important.

For more information, go to www.protectsyou.co.uk

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Tom Hainsworth is Managing Director of global textile producer Hainsworth.