By Alan M. Petrillo
Personal protective equipment (PPE) makers are manufacturing structural firefighting turnout gear that is lighter, yet more protective, as well as being designed, in most instances, to be custom fit to the firefighter.
The strides that PPE manufacturers have made in making PPE comfortable and easier to wear, yet still continue to provide the level of safety necessary to protect them, have brought turnout gear to a new level of maturity.
|1 Lion’s V-Force turnout gear has notched elbows and knees that assist a firefighter when performing bending movements. (Photo courtesy of Lion.)|
Mark Mordecai, director of business development for Globe Manufacturing Co., observes, “Turnout gear is obviously different than it was 15 to 20 years ago,” adding that Globe “has been on an evolutionary path to improve the experience of wearing turnout gear for the user. Some of that evolution has been enabled by new technology,” Mordecai says, “making PPE more wearable and with enhanced performance and safety.”
Karen Lehtonen, vice president of innovation and product management at Lion, says that Lion’s focus concerning PPE “is on comfort, safety, and mobility in all our turnout gear-garments, helmets, gloves, and boots. Those are the things that we are constantly looking at.”
|2 The V-Force turnout gear made by Lion offers an assortment of sleeve versions in the jacket and different fits in the pants to allow for a proper coat-to-pant overlap. (Photo courtesy of Lion.)|
Lehtonen points out that comfort and mobility in turnout gear have to be balanced with the safety factor of the PPE. “There are multiple ways to accomplish that, including design and the various materials used,” Lehtonen says. “We look at the needs of the end users and confer with our suppliers on the materials needed.”
Todd Herring, director of marketing for Fire-Dex, believes that PPE “has evolved significantly over the years, and in the last five to 10 years, we’ve seen a more rapid evolution. Fire-Dex’s approach to that evolution is to look at continuous improvement in the turnout gear.”
Herring notes that heat stress is an important factor to be considered when firefighters are operating in turnout gear. “Fire-Dex has tried to address the issue of heat stress and adapt our products to solve those needs,” he says. “Our turnout gear is custom made and not an off-the-shelf product. The PPE goes through our factory labeled for a specific individual and fire department based on the size and configuration he needs, such as various pockets and other elements for practicality.”
|3 The FXR turnout gear made by Fire-Dex has less coat rise when wearing an SCBA, allowing firefighters the option of wearing a shorter turnout jacket. (Photo courtesy of Fire-Dex.)|
Fire-Dex’s most recent offering in PPE is a full line of custom turnout gear called FXR. “We’ve focused on making this turnout gear as light as possible by reducing the amount of material used,” Herring points out. “We’ve designed in an active posture design, which has preformed shapes so that the gear is in an active forward position. That means elbows are bent and arms are forward in the jacket, while knees are prebent and constructed of less material in the pants.”
In addition, Herring adds, “There is significantly less coat rise when wearing self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). A firefighter can wear a shorter jacket and still have the coverage needed from a safety perspective. A shorter jacket means less material and less weight on the firefighter.”
Lehtonen says that Lion’s V-Force turnout gear has notched elbows in the jacket and knees in the pants to assist a firefighter with bending. “There are shaped inserts so there’s less material on the inside and more on the outside of the elbow and knees, so you don’t get a lot of bunching in either place.”
|4 Fire-Dex’s FXR turnout gear has prebent knees in the pants that are constructed of less material to allow greater freedom of movement. (Photo courtesy of Fire-Dex.)|
The V-Force PPE jacket comes in several sleeve versions, Lehtonen notes, including a regular raglan sleeve and a biswing raglan sleeve with a pleat in the back. In the V-Force turnout pants, Lion offers different fits, from regular to a high back panel to a low-rise front, and its newest fit-a lower front rise. “We are sensitive to the coat-to-pant overlap when changing the rise in the pants to be sure of the protection offered,” she adds. “Lion’s turnout gear is completely custom built,” Lehtonen says. “We have thousands of options available, so no two customer gear orders are alike.”
Lion uses some innovative materials in its turnout gear, Lehtonen observes. “We partnered with Safety Components to launch a six-ounce-per-square-yard PBI Max outer shell,” she says, “where the standard is seven ounces per square yard. This makes the coat lighter, and it retains its flexibility because it’s a twill weave manufacture.”
Lehtonen notes that Lion offers several thermal liners for dealing with moisture management, including Center Cut, which, she says, “reorients thermal insulation fabrics. Traditionally the thermal insulation is next to the body, then the moisture barrier, and then outer shell. Because of some of Lion’s patents,” she says, “we are able to put added material outside the moisture barrier and under the outer shell, which is essentially two layers that are lighter, more durable, and give better thermal protection.”
|5 Globe Manufacturing’s ATHLETIX™ turnout gear has a Kombat™ Stretch outer shell made with PBI™ and Kevlar® fabric that allows a closer, less bulky fit with a wide range of motion and flexibility. (Photo courtesy of Globe Manufacturing Inc.)|
Mordecai says Globe’s new ATHLETIX™ turnout gear is the result of a years-long evolution that involved a systematic voice of the customer (VOC) program so that Globe would have a better understanding of what the firefighter’s experience is like in using PPE. “If you want to develop a product that changes the game, incremental change isn’t enough, and that’s what we set out to do with the VOC process,” he says. “We collected thousands of data points from firefighters around the country to better understand their experience in turnout gear.”
Mordecai notes that Globe learned firefighters “wanted lighter, more flexible turnout gear that was easier to work in and less hot and heavy. We found they believed the bulk of their gear was impeding their ability to do their jobs. With that insight, we looked at how to make turnout gear less bulky, lighter, and easier to wear, which became our ATHLETIX gear.”
Traditional turnout gear has been built as oversized so there is little restriction when it’s worn, Mordecai points out, adding length and fullness where the body bends, consequently resulting in bulk. “When you put on an SCBA, the gear bunches up under it,” he adds. “We wanted our gear to move like athletic clothing does today, so we went back through our supply chain and suppliers to develop gear that does that.”
|6 ATHLETIX™ turnout gear made by Globe Manufacturing has a 3M Scotchlite™ Comfort Trim reflective material that is segmented and heat-sealed to be lighter, more flexible, and breathable without sacrificing visibility. (Photo courtesy of Globe Manufacturing Inc.)|
Mordecai says Globe worked with TenCate to bring out the Kombat Stretch™ outer shell made with PBI™ and Kevlar® and worked with DuPont to bring to market the Nomex® Nano Flex liner, a thinner and more flexible thermal liner. “We also worked with 3M to produce a comfort trim product that’s lighter, more flexible, and allows the material to stretch with the rest of the turnout gear,” he says. “All of that allowed us to reduce the oversize of traditional turnout gear and develop ATHLETIX, which completely changes the experience of wearing turnout gear. It’s like wearing outerwear from your closet at home.”
Lehtonen notes that Lion is continuously looking for ways to lighten all of its PPE elements. “Boots, gloves, and helmets add weight to the extremities, which can be a bigger challenge than on the core,” she says. “The farther from the center of gravity, the more impact the weight can have on a firefighter.” She notes that Lion is looking at ways to make gloves more flexible and dexterous through various materials while still giving the necessary thermal protection to the hand.
“You have to bulk up gloves to meet the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) thermal requirements, but bulk negatively impacts dexterity,” she says. “On the other hand, something very dexterous presents a challenge to meet the thermal requirement. We hope some changes to the next edition of NFPA 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, will address this issue.”
ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based journalist, the author of three novels and five nonfiction books, and a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.