Whilst innovation is fundamental to driving progress through the adoption of new materials and product design, this can also be accompanied by increased costs as new, better performing materials are often intrinsically more costly to produce whilst improved manufacturing techniques require additional investment.
Over the past 10 years, PPE for the emergency services and, in particular, the fire and rescue services has developed by providing more specialised clothing designed to protect wearers from exposure to the specific hazards and dangers associated with their differing operational conditions. During this time we have seen fire services re-identify themselves as fire and rescue services to reflect their wider remit.
Whilst firefighters have always been engaged in rescue work directly linked to structural fires, their increasing involvement in the broader range of urban search and rescue (USAR) activities involving buildings, vehicles and major incidents and disaster recovery has meant that their operational activity increasingly involves rescue work. The natural extension of this wider responsibility, and its varying nature, for those engaged in supplying specialist protective garments has been to design new clothing to meet the specific needs of the wearers. In the case of technical rescue work, the garments need to provide greater physical protection than structural kit whilst normally requiring less heat, flame and protection against water penetration. This led, in 2005, to the development of prototype garments designed specifically for technical rescue applications which have since been widely adopted throughout the UK’s FRS. Similarly, wildland firefighting requires the focus to be on protection against intense heat and flame lick which has led to the design of very light weight flame retardant coveralls.
The advantages for fire and rescue services has been the scope to better equip their firefighters for any eventuality. The downside is inevitably the need for larger PPE budgets and more complicated wardrobe management as two, or three, different sets of kit are provisioned and stored, to be deployed as required. Bigger budgets also need to cover the added costs of procuring, maintaining and managing larger stocks of garments along with the logistics of handling and monitoring PPE allocation and service records.
Use fewer garments
Internationally, the growing pressure on public sector budgets, which has increased considerably in the years since the financial crisis of 2008, means that fire authorities are looking for ways to reduce their spend on the provision of emergency services which inevitably impacts on firefighter PPE. To be able to respond to these procurement pressures, manufacturers have been working on innovative solutions that maintain the levels of firefighter personal protection, whatever their operational needs, whilst reducing the overall level of costs associated with procurement, stock, maintenance and technical support. In response, Bristol has developed an innovative layered approach which uses fewer garments in different combinations to provide firefighters with the accepted high levels of protection, as measured by European and International Standards, whether deployed in structural or wildland operational environments or in technical rescue activities. The XFlex™ Layered Garment has been introduced as an economical solution to PPE provision and a means of reversing the trend of recent years which has witnessed the proliferation of garments acquired by fire services to meet all the required standards across the various operational scenarios.
Use the most durable materials
Through the continuous process of evaluating new materials and the development of advanced manufacturing methods, the benefits of lighter weight fabrics combined with innovative garment design has led to new products being brought to market which not only provide enhanced wearer protection, with less physiological impact, but provide extended wear and service life. Bristol has an established track record as an early adopter of new materials, including fibres from PBI Performance Products and DuPont Nomex®/Kevlar used in the manufacture of the latest range of Hainsworth TITAN outerlayer fabrics, and marrying these to the most advanced GORE-TEX® breathable moisture barriers to achieve world class PPE solutions. To protect garment stitching, where surface abrasion is often a cause for repair, Bristol has introduced Trimsaver which encapsulates thread into a meta Aramid braid. This can reduce the likelihood of thread repair by over 85%. The use of breathable reflective tape, when added to garments by a carefully controlled micro-perforation process, maintains the level of breathability, and therefore the comfort, of the entire garment. These are small, but significant, contributions to the overall performance and durability of firefighter PPE and contribute to the overall reductions in ownership costs constantly being sought by fire authorities reluctant to economise on wearer safety.
Make garments last longer
Cost benefits can be achieved through rationalising garment stocks, whilst further savings can be, and are being, made through adopting maintenance programmes designed to extend the service life of firefighter PPE and reduce long term replacement costs. Innovation comes in many guises, and the availability of a wider range of options allows fire authorities more choice through adopting procurement and management programmes which best suit their needs and financial circumstances. The cost-effectiveness of regular garment maintenance has been proven over the last 15 years, with the maintenance and repair facilities available being steadily expanded to extend further the operational life of all types of PPE. A growing number of Bristol’s PPE distributors are offering these facilities either in-house, or through external contracts with specialist repair and maintenance providers who are trained to adopt processes accredited by Bristol through their distributors. The introduction of these facilities allow garments, which might previously have been condemned, to be returned to firefighters for continued normal operational use.
PPE innovation is a combination of creativity in design and manufacture coupled with new approaches to the whole process of equipping firefighters with the best protective garments available in the most efficient way. The last few years have seen the pace of PPE product development, as well as its maintenance and management, expand considerably to meet the challenges of more demanding economic conditions in many parts of the world.
One of the biggest challenges has been how to maintain, or even improve, firefighter protection and safety whilst at the same time delivering front line operational protective clothing that creates better value and a long term lower cost of ownership. The adoption of more creative thinking by both users and their suppliers, combined with improved collaborative working, should help to maintain the highest safety standards we have come to expect for our firefighters whilst, at the same time, satisfying the need to operate in much tougher economic conditions.
For more information, go to www.bristoluniforms.com