Not every call is a five-alarm emergency – choose lightweight, comfortable garments for everyday protection and ease of movement.
Many firefighters have worn structural equipment or traditional three-layer gear for many years, and while these garments offer strong protection against thermal assault, they can also inhibit the body from doing what it needs to do in certain types of non-fire emergencies.
With more departments now experiencing a higher volume of wildfire and/or non-structural fire calls, wearing lightweight, alternative PPE can help protect crew members from physical overexertion and exposure to carcinogens. At the same time, the life of valuable turnout gear is extended when structural equipment is used only when necessary.
The latest National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) data shows that fire departments received over 7,000,000 calls in 2021 involving hazardous materials, hazardous conditions and other non-fire conditions. This trend points to changing community needs and an evolving role for fire services in protecting people from all types of dangers. In turn, firefighters need the right gear to help ensure a safe and appropriate response.
About TPP and THL
First it is critical to understand the role Thermal Protective Performance (TPP) and Total Heat Loss (THL) play in the performance and testing of alternative garments. There is, in most systems, an inverse relationship between TPP and THL. The optimum values for each are needed to achieve both comfort and protection.
In short, TPP considers how well the wearer is protected against thermal insult up to flashover temperatures until the body receives a second-degree burn. THL, meanwhile, regards the effective breathability of the garment. Normally as TPP goes up, THL goes down. THL is akin to the body’s ability to sweat and for that sweat to evaporate off the body (hence cooling). Wearing alternative gear with a high THL factor helps the wearer to feel (and smell) better due to improved breathability.
Thin, lightweight garments with high THL values can offer added comfort but reduced thermal protection. Heavier, thicker garments having high TPP values better protect against thermal insult but can add weight and stress to the body, hence the need to determine the level of protection required while maintaining a workable system.
Fire-Dex, a manufacturer of PPE for first responders, including alternative PPE, is committed to optimizing this balance between TPP and THL that is difficult to achieve. Traditionally, the market has offered few garments providing effectively high TPP and THL values, but this is changing with the introduction of materials like TECGEN that combine the best of both attributes. Even in stressful situations as gear absorbs heat, firefighters can come out feeling cool thanks to advances in fabric options and how gear is designed and constructed.
When to wear alternative PPE
Before looking closer at the quality materials the industry has to offer, consider these situations where structural firefighting PPE may not be needed. A single-layer, alternative garment can often provide better mobility, breathability and comfort while keeping emergency responders safe from thermal insult and hazards:
- Wildland firefighting: The added weight of turnout gear can become a hindrance when engaging in wildland firefighting. A lighter-weight, NFPA 1977 certified protective garment can meet the demands of this dangerous job.
- EMS calls: Choosing to forgo turnout gear when entering a patient’s home can protect civilians against the spread of contaminants while also reducing heat stress and improving mobility (and response times) for crew members.
- Search and Rescue: Where emergency responders must traverse large expanses of difficult terrain or jump into action at a moment’s notice, gear that moves more freely with the body’s natural movement makes it easier to perform at one’s best when it’s needed most.
Like structural gear, alternative PPE must meet NFPA standards for thermal, flame, radiant heat and flash fire protection; however, the requirements to protect personnel are lower by comparison, enabling manufacturers to use lighter, more breathable fabrics in the construction of alternative garments.
Alternative PPE garments can also be specialized for responding to different wildland and non-fire scenarios, allowing departments to dial in on the features that best suit their needs. Selection differs by manufacturer but can include options such as:
- Wildland gear certified to NFPA 1977 (wildland firefighting) for serious protection during outdoor fire emergencies, with options for secure tool/GPS placement that are critical in unpredictable environments.
- EMS gear certified to NFPA 1999 (emergency medical operations) that is waterproof and bloodborne pathogen-resistant to protect from line-of-duty hazards.
- Urban Search & Rescue (USAR) apparel certified to NFPA 1951 (technical rescue) and NFPA 1999 that is designed for the rugged challenges of technical rescue and emergency medicine.
- Dual-certified NFPA 1951 and NFPA 1977 gear that offers protection for a range of responses.
Fire-Dex also receives many inquiries from departments wanting to explore their options for alternative PPE. Here are responses to some of the most frequently asked questions:
- Can I order pants and jackets in different colours?
Yes – PPE from Fire-Dex and other manufacturers tends to come in many colours to suit different needs. Traditionally orange, wildfire gear created problems when aircraft pilots would mistake workers for smouldering hot spots, actually dousing crews with flame retardant in some cases. Today, bright yellow is the go-to choice for wildfire gear having been shown to stand out better against most backgrounds, particularly in heavily forested areas. Tan, navy, royal blue and red are also popular colours for alternative garments.
- What do I wear underneath?
For most non-fire-related calls, approved station wear is still the appropriate choice. When fighting wildfires, however, Fire-Dex recommends wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt, underwear and socks—all 100% cotton or a 100% flame-resistant blend—as synthetic materials (e.g. nylon, rayon and polyester often used in tight-fitting athletic apparel) can melt to the skin when exposed to extreme heat.
- How can I afford to outfit my department with gear?
Fire departments can explore purchase programmes that bundle structural and non-structural garments into one cost-effective package. Some manufacturers extend generous discounts to customers purchasing PPE for their entire department, so the savings can be quite significant when ordering new gear.
Departments may also find support from manufacturers who streamline the PPE buying process through ready-to-use procurement contracts. This can save time and administrative costs while ensuring the department’s meaningful participation. Departments can typically choose from multiple contract providers that work closely with the manufacturer to help ensure a smooth process.
Perform your best
Alternative PPE garments can reduce the risks of heat stress as well as the spread of carcinogens when structural gear is worn for the majority of calls. Wearing this lighter gear when responding to motor-vehicle accidents, emergency medical calls and wildfires can help firefighters maintain the body’s core temperature and prevent them from becoming overheated. Increasingly, there are more options for departments to look into and more advantages offered by innovations in materials and construction.
Few professions are as unpredictable as firefighting.
For more information, go to FireDex.com
Alternative PPE is well suited for responding to:
- Brush or wildfires
- Search and rescue
- Motor vehicle accidents
- Confined spaces
- High/low angle rescue
- Fire investigation
- Flooding, water leaks
- Overhaul (with proper respiratory protection)
- Calls for civilian assistance (lifting, moving, lockout, etc.)
- Electrical emergencies
- Goodwill calls