Safety. Comfort. Unless both are built into their protective clothing, no firefighter will be able to perform the tasks demanded of them. But how do you achieve that? For technical textiles specialist Otego, the answer lay in FIRESHIELD, a fire entry and proximity suit developed over the past 30 years in consultation with the people who should know best – the firefighters themselves. Heat Protection Market Manager Alain Tieu explains.
Otego didn’t always make firefighting suits. In fact, the genesis of the latest generation of proximity suits came from another industry well used to extreme temperatures: steel making. Nearly 30 years ago, Otego (formerly part of the Dickson Group but an independent organisation since 2020) was developing aluminised fabric personal protective equipment (PPE) for steel makers that would help protect them against two chief risks:
- Lengthy exposure to radiant heat
- Splashes of molten metal
Firefighting was floated as a possible market in which to diversify, but, back then, we really didn’t have the range of material to do that so the company remained in its lane until firefighters made our choice for us.
Some years ago, we discovered that some customers were buying our foundry range and using it for their firefighters. That prompted us to think again. Our mission is to apply our innovation to improving the protection of the people in all the sectors in which we operate. Technology had moved on significantly since we first developed our aluminium-coated fabrics. So we set ourselves the challenge of developing firefighter PPE that would be amongst the very best in the world.
Taking the heat – how to develop a firefighting proximity suit
The complete FIRESHIELD fire entry and proximity system is a four-layer suit, with each layer performing a specific function. Outermost is the ‘heat shield’, an aramid material laminated with aluminium to provide a highly reflective surface that shields the firefighter from deadly radiant heat (C4 level – ISO 11612). Together, the aramid/aluminium combination creates a material that’s extremely heat, burn and tear resistant – and will remain so after repeated intensive use.
Next is a non-woven carbon-felt insulation layer designed to inhibit and delay heat penetration. Non-woven is important as it helps to trap air between the fibres which reinforces the thermal insulation.
We think of the third layer as our secret weapon. Designed for additional thermal protection, the lightweight aluminised fabric is made from glass fibre, which provides excellent resistance to convection heat. It’s a layer that protects firefighters from the effects of steam and hot air.
Combating heat stress
Finally, next to the skin comes a cotton base layer with a hydrophilic interior that helps pull moisture away from the skin. This helps to increase wearer comfort whilst transferring moisture to the outer layer where it can dry and help regulate temperature.
Despite being the layer least likely to generate headlines, Otego’s developers knew that each layer – and especially this final inner layer – had a vital role to play in maintaining wearer comfort and safety. The challenge with any aluminium-coated material is that, whilst it doesn’t let ambient heat in, it also doesn’t let body heat out. So while you can deliver real protection to the firefighter in terms of external sources of heat, there’s a risk that you also create heat stress injuries within the suit.
Heat stress presents a variety of risks to a firefighter. It can raise core temperature, increasing heart rate and the risk of heart attack – a major cause of death in firefighters worldwide. It can increase the risk of symptoms from existing medical conditions. It may affect cognitive performance. Within a proximity suit, microclimates can exist that combat the body’s natural cooling abilities. In combination, the risks can affect not only a firefighter’s health but also their ability to carry out the job immediately at hand.
Given the nature of the application, breathable materials were not an option, so instead Otego engineers focused on reducing the risk of heat stress by making the entire suit as lightweight and supple as possible, reducing the burden on the wearer. To deliver the optimal balance of performance and comfort, we worked with the Indonesian fire brigade.
It’s vitally important that we work closely with the people who will be using our products. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Indonesia to talk to the firefighters about their clothing issues. This gave us vital first-hand information about what it’s really like to wear a proximity suit and set us on the path to making the innovations that could make their work easier and safer. Then we were able to test and modify our products based on their feedback.
Meeting international standards
With multiple standards for firefighter safety in use across the globe, FIRESHIELD has been busily collecting compliance accreditations since its launch. The first territory to certify FIRESHIELD was South Korea.
South Korean fire compliance standards are very strict, so we are extremely proud to say that FIRESHIELD is the only fabric product certified for use as a proximity suit by the Korean Fire Institute.
Since its Korean approval in 2020, FIRESHIELD has gone on to collect EN1486, the European Standard specifying test methods and performance requirements for protective clothing in specialized firefighting applications, and GA634-2015 – the equivalent standard in China. NFPA approval in America is now underway.
Innovating for the future
FIRESHIELD protective clothing is now in use as proximity suits and fire entry suits in fire brigades around the world. It’s also in use on airfields, assisting airport firefighters in dealing with ground emergencies.
Even after 30 years, the innovation hasn’t stopped. It never does. Our fire entry and proximity suits are now in the world’s top five in terms of quality and performance, and Otego will continue in our mission to make firefighting safer.
The solutions we develop are a direct response to the challenges our customers face, and no customer faces greater challenges than firefighters. I see it as our duty to continue to work with the industry to innovate the new materials that will deliver even greater protection for the future.
For more information, go to www.otegotextile.com