With a history of clothing design and manufacture stretching back over 200 years, of which the last 70 have seen an increasing focus on personal protective clothing, Bristol Uniforms, with its recognisable Bristol brand, has built an enviable global reputation as a manufacturer of innovative and world class PPE.
Although the first UK specifications for firefighter clothing were only introduced in the early 1980s it was some 40 years earlier that Bristol had become involved in the design of fire protective suits for air force pilots during the Second World War. In the 1960s, flame protective suits made from aluminised fabrics were developed for firefighters at RAF airfields. Although rudimentary by 21st century standards, the experience gained in these early, pioneering, days was to prove valuable in the later 1960s and 1970s when the first man made fibre alternatives to wool were introduced by DuPont in the form of the original flame retardant Nomex© fabrics. For the first time manufacturers had access to a fabric which combined both flame and water protection and had inherent strength and resistance to physical damage.
During the early years of Nomex© firefighter tunics, leg protection continued to be met by the use of PVC coated fabric trousers, known as PVC wetlegs, which were chosen for their superior water resistance. However, their major weakness, their flammability, was seriously exposed in the major London Underground disaster in 1987 when many people and firefighters died in a major fire at the capital’s Kings Cross station in which the PVC wetlegs were found to have contributed to the death toll amongst firefighters. The first Home Office specification for firefighter PPE, the A26, was developed in collaboration with Bristol and became the first national standard in 1988. The first European Standard, EN469:1995, was developed from a working group set up in 1992 with the BSI representing the UK with Bristol’s technical input.
Bristol has continued to play a significant role in the development of European firefighter PPE standards in the intervening 20 years which will see the latest EN469 standard published later in 2014. Bristol continues to provide technical input to the development of new standards through its representation on working groups. More recently this work has broadened out to include technical rescue garments as well as structural firefighter PPE.
During the last two decades, the scope for product performance improvements has been the result of ever closer global collaboration between fibre, fabric and PPE manufacturers. The development of new fibres and fabrics by PBI, DuPont and Kermel, and the use of new fibres from these manufacturers for the development of new specialised fabrics by leading international weavers such as Hainsworth, has allowed Bristol to design firefighter clothing which not only provides enhanced personal protection but has led to the introduction of new generations of more ergonomically efficient clothing. Ten years ago, Bristol pioneered the use of physiological assessments through wearer trials to determine the impact of firefighter PPE on both the ease of movement and the stress levels of internally generated heat during active deployment. This was the first time that the overall health and safety of firefighters had been researched by looking closely at internal factors. The results clearly showed that the weight and construction of firefighter clothing were significant factors in the physiological responses of firefighters. This led to the introduction of lighter weight 3 layer PPE constructions as well as the development of a unique three dimensional design, Bristol’s XFlex™, which offers enhanced levels of wearer comfort and mobility and which has become the platform on which the latest structural and technical rescue protective garments have been designed and built.
At a time when a number of specialist PPE manufacturers are turning to diversification as a route to expanding their businesses, Bristol has adopted a strategy of increased focus and specialisation. This approach has been part of a long term plan to intensify its concentration on developing ever higher performance protective clothing for the emergency services – a plan which began back in the 1980s when the company ended its production of workwear. The successful pursuit of this strategy has been dependent upon an ongoing investment programme in research and development, design capability, state-of-the-art manufacturing capacity in the UK and a long term commitment to bespoke product offerings.
To achieve its growth and market share objectives, Bristol has steadily refocused its attention on putting collaboration at the heart of its business model. This collaborative approach is actively used in both its upstream and downstream relationships. Mention has already been made of the partnerships which have been built with major materials suppliers which has created a close and confidential commercial environment which, in turn, has allowed an extensive sharing of information for shared technical programmes. Similar relationships with specialist IT suppliers and production equipment manufacturers has been behind the successful enlargement of its UK production capability by the expansion of computerised design, production planning and production control.
Given the increasingly technical nature of protective clothing for firefighters, riot police and technical rescue and hazardous area response teams in the ambulance and air ambulance services, focusing on the design and development of multi-layered protective garments has produced results which have cross-over benefits for all emergency services personnel. The range of physical properties which need to be incorporated into the variety of two and three-layered garments which meet the various national, European, North American and International standards is extensive and requires the level of specialisation which is made possible by concentrating on emergency services PPE. These characteristics include flame and water protection, breathability, pathogen and hydrocarbon resistance, tear, puncture and abrasion resistance coupled with the ability to deliver good wear resistance and to withstand regular maintenance. Minimising the lifetime cost of ownership of high performance technical clothing relies considerably on its longevity which, in turn, requires build quality to allow frequent washing and decontamination (where required) without impairing the integrity and performance of the garments involved.
Whilst efficient systems and manufacturing are a key to the production of world class products, capable of meeting the technical and commercial needs of customers in well over 100 countries where Bristol’s products are in regular use by municipal and industrial firefighters and civil defence forces, resilience of the business is key to providing long term confidence to customers. Its importance in creating and maintaining long term supply contracts, as demonstrated when securing the contract for the Integrated Clothing Project (ICP) for the fire and rescue services in England and Wales in 2008 and which runs until 2021, has been illustrated on numerous occasions when continuity of supply and support services has ensured that the operational capability of fire and rescue services has not been compromised. Resilience is closely tied into business continuity on which fire and rescue services and the public they serve and protect depend. Financial strength provides the resources needed to weather the inevitable fluctuations in business activity which arise from the impact of business cycles on nations’ economies and the ability to meet the investment demands of an expanding business. The other major constituent of resilience is the ability to maintain product availability and support services even in the face of unforeseen events. Bristol has, over time, located additional manufacturing capacity away from its Bristol base to other locations in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. In this way it has ensured that the levels of product quality essential to supporting its brand values are readily monitored and maintained, that the supply chain remains strong and that these locations can be effectively and efficiently managed.
Resilience can also be measured in terms of the level of control the company has over its supply capabilities across the range of head-to-toe PPE it supplies. In recent years, Bristol has invested in the development of its own brand of garments in addition to those traditionally associated with the company – fire coats and trousers. In 2012, for example, two new in-house manufactured flash hoods were introduced and further extensions of this product policy will see a new range of firefighter gloves launched in 2014 with other items of PPE likely to follow in future years.
Over 160 years ago, Bristol was regularly shipping ready-to-wear men’s clothing to Australia, an extension of its export business which dates back to the 1830s. It was a major milestone of some historical significance when, in 2009, Australia once again became a growth market – this time in firefighter PPE. The appointment of PAC Fire Australia as Bristol’s distributor there provided the springboard it needed to re-enter the market which has seen both Airservices Australia’s ARFF and the Australian Defence Force’s firefighters specify Bristol PPE which was delivered and deployed in early 2010 and 2012 respectively.
Business with municipal fire services and industrial users, built up over the past 40 years, is now handled by over 70 distributors covering over 100 countries on every continent. Around half of all Bristol’s PPE is shipped into export markets every year, a business which continues to grow steadily. Whilst Europe, considered by some to be a ‘home’ market as many of the countries are now an integral part of the European Union, is an important destination for Bristol’s EN classified fire clothing, its NFPA standard PPE is used in parts of South America and the Gulf States. Many smaller nations prefer either to adopt EN or ISO standards whilst some large countries have developed their own standards based on derivations of either EN or ISO standards such as the Australian AS4967 standard to which the ARFF kit for Airservices was made.
Bristol will continue to use its technical, manufacturing and managed services skills and experience to reinforce its brand values and its global reputation as an innovative, reliable and supportive supplier. A valued pedigree is a mark of past performance and, in a complex and highly competitive world market, the company will be working hard to demonstrate to its customers, suppliers and prospective future users that it is capable of matching their expectations well into the future.
Philip Tasker is UK Sales Manager with Bristol Uniforms
For more information, go to www.bristoluniforms.com