By Peter A. Kirk
Market Manager, Protective Systems
Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics
At a time when cutting back and scaling down have become second nature for the public and industry alike, it has become commonplace to accept getting less, as long as you are paying less. However, in the world of emergency response and chemical protection, there is no room for getting less-especially when it comes to interacting with hazardous materials.
Fortunately, there are different configurations in hazmat technology that can provide a cost-effective solution without compromising safety. Easily recognized and commonly used is the Level A suit configuration.
Level A hazmat suits are fully encapsulating. Because the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is contained inside the suit, Level A configurations offer users protection against vapors, gases, and other airborne hazards.
However, Level A suits aren’t always the most appropriate option for a given hazmat incident. Cost-effective, alternative configurations are available, and they will not compromise user safety in the hot zone when in compliance and used in the correct situation.
Enter Plan B
Unlike their Level A counterparts, a Level-B-configured hazmat suit typically features an open-faced design, with the SCBA mask and bottle outside of the suit. For this reason, most Level B suits do not protect against gaseous hazardous agents, but they do offer protection against chemicals in liquid and aerosol form with enhanced maneuverability. But because of the way the suit is manufactured, and the materials from which it is produced, it is often significantly less expensive than a Level A suit.
Therefore, these suits offer a viable, cost-effective option when the properties of the hazardous agent are known and there is little threat of exposure to hazardous vapor or gas. By having capabilities of both Level A and Level B available, companies can protect their personnel from harm in any situation, while avoiding unnecessary monies spent by having to refurbish or dispose of Level A suits because they were used in an unnecessary situation.
Although Level B suits are cost-effective, they must not compromise the level of necessary protection for emergency responders. For more than 100 years, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has been the leading authority on fire protection and safety, developing standards for equipment that emergency service workers rely on to keep them out of harm’s way-including chemical protective hazmat suits. Hazmat suits must pass the organization’s rigorous tests of physical and chemical resistance to achieve NFPA compliance.
The NFPA offers standards that detail appropriate applications for Level B-configured suits. NFPA 1992, Standard on Liquid Splash-Protective Ensembles and Clothing for Hazardous Materials Emergencies, establishes the requirement for chemical liquid splash protection when no chemical vapor hazards exist. To comply with NFPA 1992, a suit must go through rigorous chemical permeation tests to determine if it will stay intact and adequately protect the user in the hot zone.
Keeping Up with Level A
When chemical splash protection is not enough, emergency responders may want to consider a Level B suit that complies with NFPA 1994, Standard on Protective Ensembles for First Responders to CBRN Terrorism Incidents, which offers the maneuverability benefits of a Level B configuration with protection against chemicals in liquid and aerosol form.
Emergency responders should look for Level B suits that comply with NFPA 1992 and NFPA 1994, Class 2-the highest level of protection under the NFPA 1994 banner. This dual compliance provides liquid and aerosol chemical protection in scenarios when the agent is known and a Level A suit is deemed unnecessary.
First responders should also pay attention to the design of the suit’s hood. New innovations in hazmat suit design are furthering protection for emergency responders. Suits are now being engineered with airtight hood-mask interfaces, further protecting the user against exposure to the small droplets in an aerosol hazard.
For today’s emergency responders, there is a range of options available in both the configuration and the type of chemical protective equipment. By evaluating each hazardous situation and understanding the compliance level and capabilities of the equipment, emergency responders can ensure their safety and comfort.
The most important focus in the emergency services industry is keeping personnel safe while operating in the hot zone. As cost savings becomes more and more of a necessity, it is important to note that saving money can risk safeguarding hazmat professionals.
PETER KIRK is the market manager of the ONESuit® line of chemical and biological protective products at Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is responsible for product development and marketing strategies, leveraging his technical background in protective clothing and structures. He earned an MBA from Franklin Pierce College, an M.S. in marketing from Southern New Hampshire University, and a B.S. in mechanical engineering technology from the University of Maine.