Technology Continues to Drive PPE Development

(1) Lion uses lighter and more protective fabrics in its V-Force turnout gear to reduce the weight of garments yet still provide maximum protection.
(1) Lion uses lighter and more protective fabrics in its V-Force turnout gear to reduce the weight of garments yet still provide maximum protection. (Photo courtesy of Lion.)

How far can technology take personal protective equipment (PPE)? Quite a ways, say manufacturers of turnout gear, who have used various technological developments to make PPE more protective, less restrictive, and easier to work in without overburdening firefighters with oppressive weight.

“It’s important to keep weight down when building PPE,” says Hayley Fudge, director of marketing for Lion. “When the industry was pushing for a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear (CBRN) type of turnout gear, the worry was about the added weight of the gear that almost amounted to overprotection.”

From a design and construction standpoint, manufacturers are limited in what they can do to turnout gear in changing its shape, Fudge points out. However, the weight of the garment is one area in which manufacturers can make big adjustments. “Our stance is to reduce the water intake into the garment and move any moisture away from the firefighter’s body to reduce the weight of the garment itself,” Fudge says. “Our Isodri moisture management system is a good example of that.”

Moisture Barrier

Karen Lehtonen, director of products for Lion, says Isodri is a layered system of fabrics that are treated with durable water repellent finishes, from the outer shell to the interior thermal liner, designed to resist water absorption to reduce weight gain of the garment. “What moisture is generated by the firefighter from body sweat is wicked away and spread out to be evaporated,” she notes.

Lehtonen adds that Lion continues to search for lighter and more protective fabrics to use in its PPE. “There is so much technology available that can be applied to PPE,” she says, “but it becomes difficult when it has to be applied to the high-heat scenarios that PPE is subjected to.”

Dead Air Isn’t Bad

Michael Laton, product manager for body protection at Honeywell First Responder Products, says because the fire service has been asking for lighter-weight turnout gear that provides more protection, Honeywell has looked at using new and different types of materials in its gear. “There are developments underway with materials that are lighter but still protect well,” Laton says. “These include materials for the outer shell, the thermal barrier, and the moisture barrier.”

Technology played a part in Honeywell’s development of using dead air panels in its Morning Pride line of turnout gear, Laton notes. “In a turnout coat, there are areas that have the potential to produce burn injuries,” Laton says. “These include the shoulders, upper back, and wrist areas. We increased the thermal protection in those areas with dead air panels–strips of material that increase air gaps between the layers of material.” The underlying theory, he says, is that air is a good insulator and serves to increase the thermal protection in those areas.

Likewise, Honeywell uses a similar thermal insulating material wrapped around the knee areas in its bunker pants. “We put heat channels in the knees of the pants to protect the firefighter from compression burns when crawling on hot floors,” Laton says. “The extra insulation provides higher heat resistance and gives additional protection where there’s a potential for burns.”

It’s About Integration

Tony Wyman, Honeywell’s vice president of marketing, points out that while his company has several hundred patents in the areas of PPE design and materials, the technological advances have to be well integrated into the gear’s design. “It’s not simply layering fabric over fabric because that only adds weight, density, and cost to the gear,” he points out. “As fire departments continue to struggle with fiscal constraints because of the state of the economy, we’ve developed solutions for protecting firefighters while still reducing the cost of the gear.” Wyman says Honeywell has accomplished that feat “through design and technology–not by adding material, but through innovative design that reduces weight, minimizes cost, and keeps up safety.”

Laton points out technological advances in gear are evident in how ergonomically responsive PPE has become. “Our flagship design, Morning Pride, has a forward flex sleeve that allows for better arm mobility and doesn’t allow any coat rise when reaching over your head,” Laton says. “The patterning of the sleeve and coat also allows for better torso mobility, and the variegated hem–the tail of the coat–gives better thermal protection on the firefighter’s back when he’s in a crouch position.”

Extra patterning built into the crotch area of Morning Pride bunker pants, Laton notes, allows for a free range of motion and better mobility when stepping up or down, or crouching.

Fudge agrees that technology has helped create turnout gear that is more responsive to the way a firefighter needs to move to perform his job. “Lion’s V-Force turnout gear is designed to move with the firefighter’s body and work with the firefighter, not against him,” she says.

Lion also offers a ventilated trim on all its turnout gear to remove heat from the garments. “Our ventilated trim has small holes–0.8-mm holes, 114 per square inch–standard on all our PPE,” Fudge says. “The holes do not affect the durability of the garment but they allow heat to escape.”

The Protective Envelope

Mark Mordecai, director of business development for Globe Manufacturing, says the materials used in making PPE are highly evolved. “There’s been incremental improvement happening in all the layers of PPE,” Mordecai says, “but nothing like a steep change. Some of that is a requirement of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, and also the fact that the materials themselves are performing pretty well.”

Mordecai says for at least the past ten years, turnout gear manufacturers have focused on the protective envelope, which has gotten increasingly protective. “Most problems are not firefighters burning up, but cardiac events and physiological issues,” he notes. “Globe is focusing on two areas–physiology monitoring and a more layered PPE system.”

Mordecai predicts that turnout gear of the future will involve more base layers between the firefighter’s skin and the outer shell. “You’ll also see some thermal protection moved around, instead of only serving as the outer envelope of the gear,” he says. “It’s all about making less-restrictive gear that provides greater thermal protection.”

“Smart” PPE

With that layered approach, Globe is developing turnout gear that not only provides passive protection but also will be able to monitor the firefighter’s physiology inside the gear. “Our Wearable Advanced Sensor Platform (WASP) system will have sensors in the base layer of the shirt and GPS location tracking in a pouch on the turnout coat,” Mordecai says. “It will communicate through Bluetooth to a Motorola radio base station outside the building. There’s no installed infrastructure–only sensors on the firefighters and an integrated approach for the monitoring.”

Mordecai says Globe is using existing mission-critical radios, with the first deployments being with Motorola, but will be working with other radio manufacturers in the future. “We’re doing trials with fire simulation through various fire academies around the country and in the spring of 2012 will do field trials with fire departments,” Mordecai says. “We plan on having a commercial platform available by the end of May 2012.”

ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer and is 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.

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