PPE, Turnout Gear

Globe Manufacturing: 125 Years and Counting

Issue 12 and Volume 17.

Stephanie C. McQuade

The turn of the 20th century could be called the era of innovation. In 1886, housewife Josephine Cochrane tried to make life a little easier when she invented the dishwasher. Months later, sick of spectacles slipping off his nose, Adolph Fink invented the first contact lenses. And, what would a hot dog be without John Pemberton’s 1886 invention of Coca-Cola®? Although these inventions certainly made life more enjoyable, there was one particular innovation of the time that did much more-saved lives. The year was 1887 when Globe Manufacturing Company introduced firefighter turnout gear to the market. Today the company is celebrating 125 years of dedication to firefighter safety.

The Beginning

Globe Manufacturing’s first turnout suit was a black coat made out of cotton duck-a heavy, plain, woven cotton fabric. It was the only protection firefighters had between them and the battles they fought. Globe Owner Courtland F.H. Freese, a firefighter himself, designed a long, 50-inch trench coat, with a thermal liner and a moisture barrier. The coat featured a plaid interior, a rolled collar and snap, and D-ring closures. Firefighters loved it. And much like Coca-Cola, it was a recipe that wouldn’t really change until the 1950s. The reason for this was simple. “There was a lot of tradition in the field,” says Doug Towle, who has been a sales representative with Globe Manufacturing for 56 years.

In 1925, Freese family designers tried something radically new. The revamped design removed the corduroy standup collar and patch pockets. Instead, the collar folded down and pockets were inset. Perhaps the biggest change: the old “snaps and Ds” were replaced by the zipper, which was conveniently invented in 1893, just six years after Globe’s invention of the turnout coat. But, this new design was short lived. The fire service immediately rejected it, saying it “didn’t look like a turnout coat.”

“Things stayed the same for all those years because people don’t like change,” says Towle, “even if it meant wearing metal helmets and flammable coats.”

It’s this very type of equipment that 40-year veteran firefighter Gary Johnson painfully remembers. Gary started out as a New Hampshire firefighter in 1972. “Helmets were either leather, plastic, or metal. They didn’t make firefighting gloves, so I went out and bought welder’s gloves. And, I thought it was state of the art.”

But, unfortunately he was wrong. In 1985, Johnson was leading a couple of days of training-a day of smoke drills followed by a second day that included a training burn. Back then, removing the thermal liner from the coat was an option. In fact, it was actually called the “winter liner.” So in the summer months, it was hard to resist taking it out, particularly in a controlled environment. That’s exactly what he did during the smoke drills. The next day, on the way to the training burn, he realized that he’d forgotten to put it back. It was the only element of gear back then that acted like a thermal barrier.

“We don’t build them that hot for the rookies,” Johnson remembers thinking to himself. He now says it was that bit of complacency that he paid for dearly. A series of events led to a preflashover, in which Gary suffered second-degree burns on both arms, his shoulders, and his back. He was out of work for 60 days. That said, Johnson says if he were wearing today’s gear, he likely wouldn’t have been burned at all. It wasn’t for lack of innovation in the industry, however.

(1) Globe Manufacturing’s first turnout suit was a black coat made out of cotton duck-a heavy, plain, woven cotton fabric. Here its inventor is shown wearing an original suit next to an original turnout coat on display. (Photos courtesy of Globe Mfg. Co. LLC.)

Material Evolution

In the 1950s, neoprene, a material invented by DuPont™, was used for the waterproof interlining of Globe’s turnout coat. “We owe everything to DuPont for revolutionizing turnout materials,” says Towle.

In 1966, DuPont invented aramid, a groundbreaking material that was flame-resistant, breathable, and waterproof. Globe incorporated these new technologies into its turnout coat and took its new design to a trade show that year. But with a price tag of $250, vs. the cotton duck turnout coat at $25, no one wanted it aside from the Cleveland (OH) Fire Department, which purchased 400 units.

Just 14 years later, the new gear caught on, and 70 percent of fire departments around the country were sporting it. Unfortunately, not every department in the 50 states had the resources to buy it. Johnson didn’t have it in 1984.

Things began to take a turn for Globe in the 1980s as companies like 3M and WL Gore got involved and provided reflective trim material and Gore-Tex, respectively.

In 1988, the Astra was introduced. Riding the Star Wars coat tails into the future, the ads for the Astra were reminiscent of a young Luke Skywalker. Towle remembers, “It was so cool. It was shockingly different, and at first no one knew what to think.”

A New Approach

Breaking free from tradition hadn’t boded well before, but things were about to change. “The Astra turnout coat paved the way for the future. And, it led to where we are today,” says Towle. New turnout gear now featured a short coat, resting only at a firefighter’s hips, fastened with a zipper and a hook-and-loop fastener. And for the first time in history, pants were part of the equation. They were bib overalls and allowed for the weight of the heavy turnout gear and equipment to shift from a firefighter’s shoulders, to his waist. Johnson remembers the switch well. “Having faith and confidence in your gear is extremely important,” Johnson says, “and this change took it to another level.”

Since then, materials have improved from Gore-Tex to NOMEX®, making them protective from not only water and flames but bloodborne pathogens as well.

Towle believes Globe is much more innovative vs. reactive. And Rob Freese, Globe’s fourth-generation owner, concurs. “We haven’t been in business for 125 years because we do the same old stuff,” he says. “We love what we do.”

(2) This ad shows a firefighter donned in Globe’s Astra turnout gear. Breaking from tradition, this turnout gear featured a short coat, resting only at a firefighter’s hips, fastened with a zipper and a hook-and-loop fastener. For the first time in history, pants were part of the equation. They were bib overalls and allowed for the weight of the heavy turnout gear and equipment to shift from a firefighter’s shoulders, to his waist.

Addressing Needs

The industry is now showing a need for change. Freese says 80 percent of emergency calls to fire departments are for medical situations, not fires. “So we are realizing we need to make gear for that. A first responder doesn’t need 75 pounds of gear to respond to these calls, so we are going to offer a solution before there’s a problem.”

As for Johnson, he’s admired Globe products most of his career. “Don’t tell Rob Freese I said this, but I’ve always felt Globe manufactures the best product. I think they devote a lot more of their resources toward research and development than the other companies do. It might have something to do with the fact that Rob has to wear his own gear when he fights fires.”

Globe Manufacturing is and has been along for the ride for 125 years. Today, Rob Freese, the great grandson of the man who invented turnout gear, leads the company. He says, “We are a fourth-generation family business. Less than one percent of companies can say that. We are here not because my dad did it and his dad did it. We are here because when one person says, ‘your gear saved my life,’ you want it to happen again and again.”

STEPHANIE C. McQUADE joined Globe as the marketing services manager in 2005. Before joining the Globe family, she worked for two years in the marketing department of Softub. Her career started with New England Telephone, first in customer service and then in computer processing.