(Part One of Three)
Selecting bunker clothing can be difficult. There are hundreds to choose from for just the three base layers – the outer shell, moisture barrier, and the thermal barrier.
Making these material choices, together with the selection of specific clothing features such as trim type, pockets, closure systems, reinforcements, and overall coat and pant design, adds up to a myriad of considerations when choosing your department’s gear.
This article will provide a logical, systematic way to select firefighter protective clothing that includes the factors and features most relevant to your department.
Selecting firefighter protective clothing should follow a step-by-step process that can be customized. As a minimum, this is a three-part process.
First, the department should conduct a hazard and risk assessment. This step will establish the specific protection needs the department has relative to its response activity and circumstances.
Using the findings, your department should examine material system performance differences, determining the characteristics that your department considers most important. Parallel to material review, identifying appropriate design features that will affect the overall firefighter protection and comfort is important.
Next, the department should perform field tests. Only by wearing the clothing can you really determine if what the company is offering is adequate or better than another manufacturer.
Field tests, however, must be properly conducted to achieve their full benefit. These tests should be conducted under controlled circumstances that allow you to objectively rate potential clothing choices. This process must consider the care and maintenance of bunker clothing, as the purchase represents a significant investment. Gear must provide an adequate service life.
Lastly, developing a clothing specification that best reflects department needs is important. The specification step must be done once the risk and hazard assessment is completed and the field tests are done. The information gathered must be used to design the specification that ensures your department gets what it really needs and wants.
This process should be assigned to a task group or committee that represents all interests, including management, labor, line firefighters, safety, and training functions.
This first article addresses the first step of the process. Subsequent articles will address the other two steps – conducting field testing and preparing specifications.
Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) requires all employers to conduct a workplace hazard assessment identifying the hazards their employees might face. The information gathered during the assessment is used in selecting suitable personal protective equipment to prevent exposure to identified hazards (OSHA Title 29 Code of Federal Regulations Section 1910.132).
In structural firefighting and other emergencies, the hazards firefighters face vary in type and intensity. Anticipating all the hazards is impossible, but it is a reasonable expectation that your assessment can identify the predominate hazards based on how your department responds to emergencies.
Basic hazard categories are listed in Table 1 of the OSHA code. These span the conventional hazards, such as high heat and flame exposure to less obvious hazards, such as the impact of the clothing on firefighter’s health and mobility.
It is possible to break these areas down into more specific circumstances where hazard exposure can occur. This provides an idea of the situations most commonly faced during emergency activity.
Depending on the missions your department undertakes, you may have varying degrees of exposure to other hazards such as bloodborne pathogens, fireground chemicals, and different physical hazards.
Identifying the hazard is based on your experience, and can be supplemented by examining accident history to gain an understanding of how firefighters in your department may have been injured. Use this information when itemizing each hazard you expect to encounter.
Assessing The Risks
The next step then becomes deciding which hazard poses the greatest risk. Risk is a function of how likely hazard exposure will occur together with the consequences of exposure. For example, a low-risk hazard would be one unlikely to occur and when it does occur, results in only a minor injury.
Conversely, a hazard exposure that frequently occurs and carries significant chance of serious injury would be judged as a high-risk hazard. Situations are possible where exposure likelihood is very low, but consequences of exposure remain very severe, such as being caught in a structural collapse.
The overall risk might be judged as moderate though the frequency can be low. Therefore, assigning risk to each hazard becomes a way of prioritizing hazards that warrant the greatest protection and helps set priorities in developing the bunker clothing specification.
By completing this process, you will have identified fireground and other emergency hazards that warrant the greatest consideration in bunker gear selection.
Overall Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) performance and its ability to protect against identified hazards is affected by both the materials used in clothing construction and the clothing and equipment design features that provide protection and allow firefighters to function during an emergency.
In the case of clothing, manufacturers most often use the same materials. However, some manufacturers may offer some unique material that only it supplies in its clothing or may have exclusive rights to the component.
You will find that there are over a dozen different outer shell and thermal barrier materials, and a lesser number of moisture barriers. Even though some materials may offer some great apparent characteristics, there is no substitute for field experience with any product.
Materials that several manufacturers provide are more likely to have passed the test of time. That means they probably have held up adequately under most conditions of use.
Seek The Best Protection
In contrast, be wary of materials that have either limited use or are only available from a single manufacturer. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1971 compliance is important but doesn’t tell the whole story. You should examine other data and check with other departments, based on your own research, to find out which materials will best protect against the hazards and risks identified in the first step.
While it might not be the only requisite, any protective clothing selected must comply with NFPA 1971 Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural and Proximity Fire Fighting.
The NFPA is a consensus standards development organization that establishes the minimum design, performance, labeling, and certification requirements for firefighter protective clothing including helmets, gloves, footwear, and hoods.
While the standard sets a broad requirement range for clothing, these are the minimum requirements. The standard, by itself, is not a sufficient reason upon which to base clothing specifications or to rely on to provide adequate designs and materials.
Nearly all clothing manufacturers and materials suppliers conduct supplemental tests determining the appropriateness of new products or look at levels of bunker gear performance that exceed the NFPA 1971 requirements. This is because the requirements in NFPA 1971 do not address all the conditions of use for bunker gear.
To the exclusion of other thermal environments, the standard only covers flashover conditions regarding clothing durability and other factors important for wearing bunker gear.
Compliance with NFPA 1971 remains the cornerstone of any specification upon which to build additional requirements.
NFPA 1971 requires a considerable amount of product testing and some of the results are useful in judging clothing features. Various test requirements are presented in NFPA 1971. Comparing performance requirements to the hazard/risk assessment findings can help select the appropriate gear properties.
For example, the thermal protective performance (TPP) and total heat loss (THL) provide a measure of the effectiveness of the 3-layer material system used in the base clothing construction.
The TPP values indicate insulation in high heat environments where higher numbers are better. The THL values indicate the breathability level, which is related to clothing stress on the firefighter. Here again, the higher the THL number, the better.
There is, however, a tradeoff between TPP and THL. It is generally impossible to maximize both values for a material system because as thermal insulation increases, breathability decreases.
Thus, considering the values from both properties requires balancing protection versus comfort. If your department determines that it has a greater likelihood of stress impacts from PPE use, then it might be more important to weigh the THL composite performance more heavily than TPP.
Similar analyses can be conducted regarding protection from other thermal, physical and liquid hazards.
A relatively new conductive and compressive heat resistance (CCHR) test can be used to judge how well reinforced areas of the coat and pants will protect firefighters if their clothing is compressed against hot surfaces, such as in kneeling and leaning. Asking manufacturers for this information can provide another clothing materials comparison.
All material suppliers and clothing manufacturers do various forms of non-NFPA 1971 testing to justify their products. Ideally, this testing should be based on industry standard tests. If not, they should at least correlate somehow to a standard test, such as those established by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and other nationally recognized standards development organizations.
It is important that the test have some relevance to your concerns and the specific hazard of interest. The test should make sense, provide a reasonable performance demonstration, and be repeatable by others.
Check With The Experts
If you have questions about a specific test or test result, check with industry experts for an explanation.
Whereas performance data exist evaluating materials and material systems, less quantitative information exists for determining appropriate clothing designs and how the overall clothing may provide protection against specific hazards. However, designs are just as influential as material choices in affecting your protection.
Foremost among the considerations is the way the clothing is put together to allow the user to be functional, mobile, and comfortable while still maintaining protection. NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Safety and Health Program, requires that a 2-inch overlap be maintained between coat and pant when reaching overhead and bending.
While this is a good first start, a better demonstration would require that properly fitted firefighters duck walk, crawl, and move in other ways ensuring that the clothing interfaces – coat to pant, coat sleeve to glove, pant leg to boot, and collar to hood. All need to stay in place and continue to provide protection regardless of position.
Other than the general design, there are other design details to consider. One to consider is where trim is placed on the garment – though NFPA 1971 sets a standard pattern – addressing firefighter visibility needs. Other considerations include the use of lettering and what type of pockets are needed and where they are located for carrying essential equipment.
Specifications should include the type of reinforcements for added thermal or physical protection in key areas, and the type of closures and other hardware for maintaining overall protection during use.
There may be other design aspects, which relate to specific protective or comfort features. These features can only be identified by examining manufacturers’ catalogs and then examining the gear’s features at specific opportunities such as during manufacturer visits or tradeshows.
Design features are best evaluated by field-testing.
Ultimately, the hazard/risk assessment will provide your department with valuable information to determine the particular PPE needs.
Reviewing material information and design features against both the relevant standard (NFPA 1971) and considering other performance areas and design criteria will assist your department with moving to the next step – conducting a field evaluation of prospective clothing.
This next step will help determine how relevant PPE materials and designs will be to ensuring that protection is achieved with minimum penalties to firefighter function and serviceability of protective clothing. This step will put your department on the pathway for selecting PPE that best meets its needs.
Editor’s Note: Jack Reilly is Vice President, Metro Market Accounts, Director of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Operations for Total Fire Group. He is a retired FDNY captain who has been with the Total Fire Group/Morning Pride since 1994. He holds a Business Administration degree from St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y., and supervised the initial FDNY retrofit, which included sizing, fitting and distribution of over 42,000 bunker garments, 8,000 helmets, 10,500 boots, and over 11,000 firefighters’ hoods. He tracks all FDNY PPE from his office at the FDNY Quartermaster facility at Fort Totten.