Roger Startin is Joint Managing Director of Bristol Uniforms, a leading manufacturer of PPE for firefighters around the world. In this article, International Fire Fighter finds out more about his 37 years with the company.
International Fire Fighter: How did your career begin?
RS: I joined Bristol Uniforms straight from university with the intention of becoming an accountant. It was 1981 and armed with my Business degree, I started on the factory floor, training and learning about all the processes involved in creating PPE, from concept and design, to lay planning, cutting, sewing and labelling. Whilst working, I started an evening accountancy course at Bristol Polytechnic (now the University of the West of England). However, I soon realised that accounting was not for me. I was much more interested in the day-to-day running of the business. After a year or so I started work in the sales department, and in 1987 was given the role of Commercial Director, handling UK and international sales.
By 1999 I was also handling all the purchasing for the business, and in 2002 was given my current role as Joint Managing Director alongside my colleague Ian Mitchell. We’ve worked well as a team for the last 16 years, with Ian overseeing operations, production, financing and purchasing, while I focus on sales and marketing.
International Fire Fighter: What was the PPE industry like back then?
RS: 1981 was an interesting time to come into the industry, with huge strides being made in fibre and fabric technology. WL Gore had just launched the Gore-tex Moisture Barrier, which revolutionised firefighter PPE by providing a crucial inner layer that was simultaneously waterproof and breathable, allowing sweat to escape. Hainsworth and Dupont had not long created Nomex – the durable, flame-resistant fabric with exceptionally good thermal properties.
It was around this time that Bristol Uniforms was working alongside the Home Office and London Fire Brigade to develop the first bunker-style firefighting jacket. It featured a Nomex outer-shell and was styled for comfort but was still worn with the iconic yellow PVC ‘wet legs’.
By this time, the company had also already developed significant trading relationships with many customers around the world and was beginning to consolidate these export markets by appointing international distributors. We had been working with our longest-standing distributors, Concorde-Corodex in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Techniquitel in Portugal, since 1974 and 1978 respectively, and were establishing new partnerships with Chubb in Qatar and Dasaprem in Malaysia. These relationships are still going strong today and are crucial to our ongoing success on the world stage.
International Fire Fighter: How has PPE changed over the years?
RS: Since those early days, we’ve seen significant developments in new PPE styles and designs, partly thanks to advances in fabric technology, but also in response to the changing roles and diversity of fire services across the globe.
In the mid 1990s we worked closely with brigades across the South West of England to develop the Wessex design. It was the first collaboration of its kind and the first firefighter PPE design available in both male and female sizes. This popular design was subsequently sold across the world.
Revolutionary new outer-shell fabrics such as PBI Matrix, along with WL Gore’s high-performance moisture barriers, then paved the way for a new generation in lightweight PPE, which began with our Ergotech ranges in 2003. The Ergotech design was developed following ground-breaking human physiology trials which determined the impact of different designs on heat stress.
By 2010 it was becoming clear that firefighters needed and wanted more flexibility and manoeuvrability in their PPE because their roles were evolving. Across most areas of the world, firefighters were spending much less time fighting fires. This was a good thing as it meant preventative measures, such as smoke alarms, education and safer building materials were having a positive effect. But it meant that firefighters were spending more time attending a wide variety of other emergencies such as traffic accidents, medical emergencies, flooding and chemical spills. With this in mind, Bristol began making firefighting PPE more ergonomic and comfortable, and more protective against new hazards. As a result, Bristol has remained at the forefront of PPE design, launching a series of innovative 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 across the globe.
More recently, health concerns about the long-term impact of smoke-particle exposure have heralded a new direction for firefighter PPE, focussing on new materials that act as particulate barriers. Our Particulate Protection Hood, for example, has been designed to reduce exposure around the vulnerable neck and jaw areas.
International Fire Fighter: How has Bristol Uniforms changed?
RS: Arguably, the development that has had the biggest impact on our business model has been the introduction of Managed Services in 2000, offering our UK customers a professional service for cleaning and repairing kit. This area of the business has grown significantly over the years, with most UK Fire and Rescue Services now requiring professional cleaning as standard. We now operate Managed Services out of two sites in London and Bristol, which play a crucial role in the business today.
Over the last 37 years, we have considerably expanded our global reach and have seen significant growth in international sales. We now sell to customers in more than 110 countries, through a network of some 70 distributors, who play a crucial role in the business. In 1995, we held our first International Distributors’ Conference which now take place every few years. We find these invaluable for strengthening the network and sharing knowledge and ideas on market conditions and opportunities.
We have also enjoyed considerable success at home in the UK, winning contracts for two national procurement frameworks for firefighter PPE in the UK: the Integrated Clothing Project (now the Central PPE and Clothing Contract) in 2007, and the Collaborative Procurement Framework in 2017.
To accommodate this growing demand, we’ve undergone a period of considerable expansion over the last 10 years, with the establishment of a Central Cutting Unit and a new International Distribution Centre in Yate near Bristol, a custom-designed studio for our Product Innovation Department, and the expansion and reorganisation of both Managed Service Centres to increase capacity. In line with this, we’ve also increased our workforce to more than 190 employees.
Although the company has seen considerable change over the years, it’s worth noting that we have a very strong record of long service amongst our employees, and that many of our staff have also been working for Bristol for decades. This is testament to our supportive working environment and opportunities for career progression.
International Fire Fighter: What have been your greatest challenges?
RS: Bristol Uniforms has always been a very busy place to work, and we are lucky to have a wealth of great knowledge, skill and talent onboard. The main challenge is to ensure the entire team is working together to achieve our goals. The launch of a new product, for example, affects all aspects of the business from design to manufacturing, to sales, to after-care and managed services. Our success depends on each and every area of the business pulling together.
Being an industry leader is a fantastic position to be in, but that can present its own challenges too. At Bristol, we can’t just relax and follow the lead of others. We are constantly pushing ourselves to innovate and improve our products and services, so that we remain at the forefront of our field, anticipating new issues, trends and technologies.
At times, the continued success and growth of the company has also proved a challenge. We’ve had periods when orders have risen so sharply that we have had to rapidly expand our manufacturing capabilities to meet demand. Fortunately, we have managed to respond swiftly without compromising on quality, which of course is absolutely paramount.
International Fire Fighter: How do you see firefighter PPE developing in the future?
RS: I am sure that research and development will continue with the aim of making kit even lighter and more comfortable to wear. Equally, smoke contamination is likely to be top of the agenda for many years, and as more studies are undertaken there will be discussion about how best to mitigate the risks, whether through the development of new fabrics or better cleaning practices, or both.
As a result, I expect the provision of professional managed services will become more common across the world, following the lead of established infrastructure here in the UK, in some parts of Europe and in the USA.
Whatever the future holds, I know that Bristol will continue to innovate to protect emergency crews from the many dangers they face. It is motivating and satisfying to work for a company that creates good quality products for such an important purpose, and to work in an industry that is passionate about firefighter protection and keen to collaborate. This, along with good colleagues, customers and suppliers, is one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed working for Bristol Uniforms for so many years.
For more information, go to www.bristoluniforms.com