Roger Startin, Joint Managing Director of Bristol Uniforms, explores the complex variations in PPE requirements for firefighters across the globe, and the challenge of developing PPE to suit specific countries and climates.
Across the world, fire and rescue services vary greatly, and each will have their own unique circumstances and challenges to deal with. Firefighters in Australia and the USA are more likely to face wildland fires, whilst in the Middle East, firefighters deal more regularly with transport related fires involving hazardous materials. In many European countries, less than 10% of call-outs are fire related at all, with firefighters much more likely to attend traffic accidents, medical emergencies or flooding.
A range of different climates also provide firefighters with specific challenges. The Asia Pacific region alone encompasses an enormous variation in climate ranging from hot and tropical in Indonesia and Thailand, to hot and arid in central Australia, to temperate and changeable in New Zealand. As a result, a one-size-fits-all approach to firefighter PPE is entirely inappropriate for a global industry. Instead, PPE must be suitable for the particular circumstances of each Fire & Rescue Service (FRS).
At Bristol Uniforms we have more than 60 years’ experience in the development of innovative protective clothing solutions for firefighters across the world, providing specialist PPE to more than 110 countries through a well-established network of distributors. We work closely with researchers, fabric manufactures and firefighters on the ground to ensure that our PPE is highly effective, comfortable, and suitable for both the job, and the climate, in hand.
Over the years, we have developed a wide variety of options to suit particular environments and operations, so are able to offer each customer, irrespective of where in the world they are based, a bespoke solution that is right for them.
Selecting the right fabric for your PPE is the first step in providing optimum protection for the environment you are operating in. Leading international fibre and fabric manufacturers such as WL Gore, PBI Performance Products and DuPont, have developed a number of highly specialised materials offering a range of benefits. Used in combination, these 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 which is of particular concern to those in hotter climates.
DuPont and PBI, for example, provide highly specialised and lightweight fibres for the outer-shell of a garment, which crucially provide outstanding air permeability and breathability, allowing metabolic heat to escape. But when these fabrics come into contact with intense heat, such as from a flash fire, they instantly thicken, creating a barrier to prevent burns.
At Bristol, our firefighting garments combine this type of outer shell with an inner moisture barrier and liner system which draws moisture away from the skin, helping to keep the body cool and dry. Strenuous work in a hot environment causes profuse sweating, and if this sweat is not able to evaporate, the body is not able to cool itself effectively. WL Gore is the principal supplier of the most commonly specified moisture barriers which come in a variety of fabrics in the Gore-Tex® and Crosstech® ranges.
Once the most appropriate fabric is chosen, the design and style of a garment also plays a crucial role in contributing to a firefighters’ safety. Whether operating in bushland, floods, on the roadside or even in extremely cold conditions, firefighters need to maintain a comfortable body temperature and stay dry. They are also likely to need to crawl, run, and climb to carry out the job in hand. Any protective clothing must be ergonomic and has to be able to work with them rather than hinder them.
In a move away from the traditional approach to PPE design, Bristol was the first PPE manufacturer to introduce a new layered approach using a set of three garments. This LayerFlex™ range is particularly useful when a fire service is faced with a range of operations requiring different levels of protection. When used in different combinations, the mid-layer coat, top coat and trousers provide the required levels of protection for structural and wildland firefighting as well as technical rescue. The options they provide ensure that a firefighter is able to wear garments to suit the role they are undertaking, rather than wearing the same structural fire clothing for all roles. This serves to improve ergonomics and comfort, and crucially has contributed to the lowering of heat stress in firefighters.
In addition, innovative designs have also been developed for more specific applications. For example, Search and Rescue operations often take place once the immediate danger of flame is removed, with USAR or technical rescue teams entering enclosed and confined spaces where high temperatures and often toxic smoke are hazards. Bristol has developed a range of clothing specifically for these types of operations. RescueFlex is tear and puncture resistant, provides protection against blood-borne pathogens, physical protection at high risk points such as the knees and elbows, a high level of flexibility to afford manoeuvrability in confined spaces, and is lightweight to minimize heat stress.
Similarly, for firefighters engaged specifically in combatting forest and wildland fires, Bristol has developed a range of Wildland garments including a one-piece coverall with Eco Dry Shield fabric from Hainsworth, which provides protection against radiant heat, with a double layer of fabric to guard against sharp thorns and undergrowth.
To ensure the best level of protection, most countries demand conformity with both national and international standards of performance for PPE. There are currently three major standard-setting bodies on the world stage, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) which covers the USA, Latin America and the Asia/Pacific region, the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN) which covers Europe, and the International Standards Organisation (ISO) which sets standards worldwide. In addition, each country will have its own National Standards Body (NSB), setting standards for its own specific interests, such as Standards Australia.
Ultimately, it is down to the customer to decide which standards they would like their PPE to follow. Bristol has a wealth of experience in designing garments made to range of standards specifications, including ISO, NFPA, CEN and AS/NZS, and in many cases can create PPE to meet a number of these standards simultaneously.
Individual FRSs often have particular additional requirements for their PPE, which can simply be down to style or colour preference, or can help with accommodating particular tools or equipment they need to carry out their operations.
These include alternative types of trouser front, leg openings and knee-pads, as well as cuff styles on fire coats. Other options include detachable linings, and knee and elbow reinforcements. Operational safety features such as integrated safety harnesses and drag rescue devices can also be specified.
Firefighter accessories including tools, lighting and communications equipment all have to be carried safely requiring a selection of loops, straps, D-rings, glove hooks as well as pockets and flaps which add further to the large number of permutations which form part of the bespoke nature of PPE design.
Finally, most fire services aim to present a professional and clearly recognisable identity to their communities, so particular colours and badging can be an important feature of PPE. This has led to the introduction of a wide range of fabric colours and the increased use of Velcro fixings for identification badges with logos, names and roles being individually catered for. Each FRS will have their own colour preference, with gold becoming increasingly popular in Australia along with navy and lime green, and most Asian countries opting for either gold or navy blue.
Called upon to handle an ever increasing variety of challenges, in contrasting climates and situations, today’s firefighters are certainly faced with complex environments in which to operate. By carefully studying these conditions and listening closely to our customers, PPE designers and fabric manufacturers will continue to work together to develop innovative solutions to meet these specific needs, and create optimum garments for maximum protection and comfort.
For more information, go to www.bristoluniforms.com