BY ALAN M. PETRILLO
The past several years have seen improvements, large and small, in structural personal protective equipment (PPE). Structural turnout gear manufacturers say they see structural PPE continuing to change, improve, and be modified to become more adaptive to firefighters’ needs yet still provide them with maximum protection.
Karen Lehtonen, vice president of innovation and product development for Lion, says Lion “is always looking at more flexible and comfortable turnout gear, using the philosophy of having the gear work with the firefighter and not against you. We produce gear that provides comfort, safety, and mobility balanced with National Fire Protection Association 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, requirements and durability.”
LIGHTER FABRICS AND HEAT STRESS
By using lighter weight fabrics, Lehtonen notes that Lion is able to reduce heat stress on a firefighter using its turnout gear. “Heat stress still is the number-one cause of fatalities in firefighters,” she says, “although cancer is moving up in numbers, so the concern is how to balance protection from contaminants and still maintain high levels of breathability in the gear. One way to keep out contaminants is to make PPE fully encapsulating, but that doesn’t work for firefighting because the more you tighten the interfaces, the less air exchange you have, which impacts breathability and limits how body heat escapes from the gear.”
Alysha Gray, Lion’s product marketing director for fire PPE, says Lion’s turnout gear blocks particulate contamination in interface areas by using DuPont’s™ Nomex® Nano Flex fabrics in combination with Lion’s liner system. “In the wristlet, we use a layer of Nano Flex in conjunction with our moisture barrier,” Gray points out. “We also use it in the bottom of the pant in the calf guard to go over the boot, as well as in our Core Guard, an elastic from the coat that overlaps the top of the pant. We also are looking at other technology that is evolving because we want to stay on the forefront of design and the use of new materials.”
Todd Herring, director of marketing for Fire-Dex, agrees that heat stress and particulate protection are the two major issues facing turnout gear makers. “With particulate protection, we have to understand where the exposure is coming from and how we can address it,” Herring says. “The interface areas are exposure points, so we’ll see more systems at the wrist and coat, the boot and pant, and waist and coat areas. The other focus will be on heat stress and the kinds of materials we can use to lighten weight and reduce the physiological stress on the firefighter.”
ERGONOMICS IN TURNOUT GEAR
Herring believes that ergonomics in turnout gear has progressed greatly over the past few years. “At Fire-Dex, we’ve combined advanced ergonomics, fit, and agility with new materials,” he says. “Our TECGEN 71 meets the demands of structural firefighting gear with higher levels of thermal protection and lower weight that reduces heat stress and strain on the firefighter.” Herring adds that turnout gear makers also are working on ways to make gear easier to clean and decontaminate through fabrics that wash off easier as well as being concerned about the wear on accessory items like hook-and-loop fasteners and moisture barriers.
Mark Mordecai, director of product innovation for MSA’s Globe Firefighter Apparel, says that firefighters “are industrial athletes and require turnout gear that fits better, is less bulky, and is more flexible,” which is why MSA Globe introduced a stretch material in its ATHLETIX™ structural turnout gear. “It allows us to completely reimagine how turnout gear is designed so we can provide a much more body-contoured fit and eliminate restriction because the gear moves with the firefighter by incorporating stretch. There’s more freedom of movement by design.”
Regarding protection against contaminants, Mordecai points to the Globe Guard™ System, where its jacket component is sewn into the thermal liner above the hemline and constructed of GORE® CROSSTECH® black moisture barrier and TECASAFE® PLUS for moisture management, high breathability, flame resistance, and active moisture wicking. It’s automatically engaged as part of the liner system when the jacket closures are secured. The pant fly component uses the same two materials and is installed at the base of the fly to help reduce exposure, while the pant cuff component is sewn to the liner system at the bottom hem of each leg to help reduce exposure at the pant cuff and boot interface.
RELEASING TRAPPED HEAT
Deana Stankowski, senior product marketing manager for Honeywell First Responder Products, says that Honeywell has a patent pending on a new heat release liner for structural turnout gear “that allows a much faster cool down when firefighters exit a fire event. The heat release liner has strategically placed welted vents to push out hot air and pull in cooler air.” Currently the product is specific to Honeywell’s Tails version of turnout gear but is available for the other four versions that Honeywell makes, Stankowski notes.
She says that because mobility and comfort are important to firefighters, Honeywell reengineered its product line for an updated, modern, custom fit with no restrictions in the underarms, a comfortable crotch rise, and an ease of movement over the body. “We also have an exclusive fabric, our GBX outer shell, that’s a twill weave with the durability of rip stop but provides better flexibility and movement,” Stankowski notes.
Honeywell also offers options to block particulate contamination. “In the wrist area, we have an extended moisture barrier and shingle cuff to give more overlap; in the pant, we added length to the water dam at the bottom of the pant for more flexibility and movement; and at the waist, we have our Core Shield moisture barrier that protects against contamination coming in,” she says.
FOCUS ON CLEANING GEAR
Doug Dafler, director of sales for Veridian Fire Protective Gear, believes that along with the focus on protecting against particulate contamination, there should be a continued focus on cleaning and deconning gear more often. “We’re all aware that gear must be handled differently than in the past,” Dafler points out. “It has to be cleaned more frequently and more thoroughly than ever before. And, fire departments have to consider the use of two sets of turnout gear for each firefighter, so that contaminated gear can be bagged or gross deconned at the scene before being brought back to the station to be cleaned and put back in service.”
Dafler notes that Veridian is looking at how to address the interface areas of gloves and wrists, cuffs at boots, and where the coat overlaps the pant. “With our Velocity gear, we will address the coat-pant interface with a band barrier on the jacket that has elastic in it to create a gather at the waist area,” he says, “and are considering an option of a similar barrier and extended sleeve at the wrist.”
John Therrien, national sales manager for Lakeland Fire, says that some research has indicated that toxic polyfluorines might be coming from chemical treatments used on outer shell fabrics. “Those studies are not conclusive,” he says, “so the contamination may be coming from other external sources. We are working with some manufacturers on alternatives like wool, which has inherent fire resistance and water absorption resistance as well as other materials with finer denier of yarn, so they are a little less impermeable.”
Brian Shiels, director of quality assurance for PBI Performance Products Inc., says that in the past few years one of the big changes in structural turnout gear has been a reduction in weight. “We see a continuing push for gear that’s lighter in weight and also more flexible,” Shiels says. “In addition to reducing weight, many fabric makers are moving away from a rip stop weave fabric to a twill weave, which tends to be more flexible and also helps reduce heat stress. If the fabric and the garment are working against you, making it harder to move, it generally places more stress on the wearer, so if there are things we can do with a fabric to prevent that, like a combination of lighter weight and flexibility, then that stress can be reduced.”
He notes that his firm “is the only manufacturer in the world making PBI, the polybenzimidazole fiber found in various fire service fabrics. Pound for pound, PBI provides the highest level of heat and flame resistance, allowing for fabrics that are lighter in weight and more flexible, with no compromise on thermal protection.” Shiels says his company manufactures miles of PBI at a time and then cuts it into two- or four-inch lengths that are sold to yarn manufacturers that twist various fibers together to make yarn, which goes to a weaver who blends it into fabric.
David Eskew, fire service market manager for Milliken & Company, says his company acquires fibers from fiber manufacturers such as PBI, DuPont, and Fire-Dex’s TECGEN 71 that it spins into yarn, then weaves into fabric that is dyed and finished with water repellent and/or solar relief chemistry. “Our company is 143 years old in the textile world and has decades of experience in processing fire-resistant fibers into fabrics,” Eskew says, “and ResQ™ is our brand for the fire service.”
Eskew notes that because heat stress and cancer are the largest killers of firefighters, the PPE industry “has to stay vigilant on eliminating those risks and helping fire departments track and measure improvements in those areas and then make modifications to standards and procedures.” He points out that Milliken seeks insights from first responders about how turnout gear could be improved; performs scientific research on flame-resistant fabrics at its laboratory; and produces fabrics that are user-friendly, lighter, and more flexible that can be made into turnout gear that moves with the body, lessening heat stress.
Mordecai says that his company is still considering the possibility of physiological monitoring being built into structural turnout gear. “We have worked in the area for a dozen years now, having developed a shirt for physiological monitoring that is deployed in some training academies around the country, so we’re past the technical hurdles,” he points out. “If the objective to monitor firefighters on the fireground is something commanders want to see, we’re still years away from it. But, the big question is what you want to do with that data, which can make a difference in firefighter safety during operations.”
Herring sums up the challenges facing the structural PPE industry. “We have to see a reduction in weight if we want to address the heat stress issue, but we have to use innovative technology to get there,” he says. “We can do it through the design of the garment and also through advances in fabric technology. On the particulate contamination issue, there’s an interesting amount of data coming out of research institutes about carcinogen exposure and the realization of what’s actually happening on the fireground. The more information we have, the better we can work to develop and engineer solutions.”
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.