|Honeywell uses a forward flex technique of lengthening bunker gear fabric on legs and arms so there is no leg or sleeve retraction to expose limbs when a firefighter moves in stretching motions.|
Manufacturers of personal protective equipment (PPE) see trends in structural firefighting gear continuing to develop through 2011, making the most of technological advances in ergonomic design, improved fabrics and integration of personal escape devices.
Executives of the major companies held their collective breath early in 2010, concerned about how the economic downturn would affect their businesses. But, PPE makers were not hit as hard as the apparatus side of the fire industry.
“2010 was an interesting year in that everyone in the industry entered the year with a certain amount of trepidation, wondering what it would be like with customers having the fiscal problems they were facing,” said Tony Wyman, vice president of marketing for Honeywell Safety Products. “It didn’t turn out as bad as we feared… There’s still a lot of demand in the marketplace and customers with money to spend.”
Wyman said he’s seen many departments deciding to stretch their equipment use another year, but was pleased that they didn’t abandon the specs they worked hard to develop for PPE purchases.
“We didn’t see anyone go from a top line product to lesser gear,” he said, “which was a good thing for the firefighters and for manufacturers.”
Karen Lehtonen, director of PSG Products at Lion Apparel, had a similar view of the marketplace.
“Fire departments are not necessarily downgrading their purchases of PPE, but they are buying less of it,” she said. “They are not changing their protection levels or looking at different materials, but the quantity of purchases has gone down.”
She said Lion saw the PPE market rebound somewhat in late 2010 and anticipates a “more normal” 2011.
One of the driving forces in any uptick in PPE buying, according to Lehtonen, will be the integration of harnesses into bunker pants.
“Integration is a huge item for harnesses and escape belts,” she said. “Departments are assessing how they’ll use those devices, and along with them, they also are interested in escape kits and making the most efficient use of them, whether contained in pockets, bags or as SCBA attachments.”
The added costs of putting harnesses and escape kits into bunker gear is also on their minds, she said.
“And there are other considerations, such as the added weight of the harness, hook, rope and descent device,” she said. “That extra weight means more stress on the firefighter.”
Mark Mordecai, director of business development for Globe Manufacturing Company, sees PPE trending toward less bulky gear with a more tailored fit that’s ergonomically designed with fewer restrictions.
“We want to keep firefighters from fighting their gear, which is why we added ergonomic features a few years ago,” he said. “It’s much less like wearing a potato sack and allows much greater maneuverability.”
Mordecai thinks PPE makers will devote additional resources to developing lighter and stronger materials for turnout gear.
“The industry is applying more innovation in the materials development area,” he said. “For instance, you want active resistance in a material, meaning an outer shell that’s abrasion-resistant, provides break-open resistance and also a certain amount of thermal protection. These active resistance materials become more resistant when exposed to heat.”
He called materials technology “the next frontier,” predicting that within the next few years it will “go beyond the good, better and best that we have now and offer the same across-the-board protection.”
Wyman of Honeywell anticipates the weight of gear will be reduced.
“As the number of [emergency medical service] calls stays at the 70 percent to 80 percent level, you will see fire departments working toward issuing lighter weight products,” Wyman said. “It’s an interesting issue, pitting breathability versus thermal protection.”
Wyman noted that total heat loss (THL) delineates how breathable gear is. “A one-layer garment for an [emergency medical technician] might have a THL of 600,” he said. “For a firefighter wearing three layers, the THL would be 250 or 260.”
PPE makers are also concerned with thermal protective performance (TPP), the amount of heat from which a firefighter must be protected. The higher the TPP, the more protective a garment is.
“In a perfect world, we would have a high TPP and a high THL in bunker gear,” Wyman said. One of the ways Honeywell has tried to reach that goal, he said, is by adding dead air panels in its bunker gear.
“It provides a high TPP without adding additional layers of fabric,” he said, “and doesn’t damage the THL of the gear.”
Lion’s Lehtonen sees the primary focus of PPE manufacturers as “making the gear more comfortable for firefighters and more flexible to work in.” She said reduced weight will come from new choices in outer shells and inner linings that are lighter, yet still high in thermal protection.
“We want to make it as small a burden as possible when wearing protective gear,” she said.
On the integration front, Mordecai said he has seen many more departments requesting harnesses in bunker pants. “It provides a better user experience, instead of having two separate units trying to work together,” he noted.
Integration is spreading to interface areas. “Boots will be integrated with pants, and gloves and helmets will be integrated with jackets,” Mordecai said. “There’s more of a systems approach to PPE now, with emphasis on system design and integration instead of independently developing those elements.”
The key, he said, is in developing the interfaces in a single design process, where boots are developed in conjunction with bunker pants to make a seamless interface.
Wyman also sees integrated elements as part of PPE’s future, but offers a note of caution. “We have an interface of products in our Project Heroes gear,” he said, “but integration comes with wear and design challenges.”
For example, he said, if gloves are integrated as part of a bunker jacket by being sewn on, and the gloves get soaked in diesel fuel, then taking the gloves out of service means the coat is not functional either.
Honeywell is tackling the interface problem through gapping.
“We accomplish an interface partly through lengthening the fabric and designing the interfaces so there is no sleeve or leg retraction,” Wyman said. “The gear is not designed for the arms in hands-down position, but for the natural design of hands out at a 90-degree angle from the body.”
Firefighters are action professionals, he noted, raising their hands and arms a lot in the course of their work.
“A standard feature of our gear is a fabric that doesn’t pull against the body and expose the wrist,” he said. “We call them the ‘flex forward sleeve’ and the ‘kinetic kut.'”
Globe’s Mordecai pointed out that another form of PPE integration is on the horizon – electronics.
“We already have electronics integration in SCBA, and before long we’ll be building physiological monitoring and location tracking into PPE,” he said. “It will have a dramatic effect on firefighter safety because we’ll be able to monitor a firefighter inside a building instead of only having voice communication.”
Mordecai said a sensor system might include gas and temperature protection as part of the electronics package.
“Instead of a passive protective envelope, the future will see a much more active protective system that integrates electronics to monitor and protect the firefighter,” he said. “Firefighters are subject to a great deal of stress over fairly short intervals of time, which makes for a challenging physiological experience. We need to provide PPE that makes them more effective in carrying all that weight and doing the job with less stress.”