PPE Technology To The Rescue

By Mark Mordecai
Director of Business Development,
Globe Manufacturing Company

I’m somewhat incongruously perched above a beach in Florida at an altogether serious conference on personal protective equipment (PPE) put on by a variety of federal agencies including the Technical Support Working Group (TSWG). This conference, in late November, is focused on new technologies needed to deal with the seemingly endless variety of threats that we face today. And I am struck by the progress that we have made and are making.

First of all, you should know that there are groups beyond our hard-working fire service organizations that are doing some of the heavy lifting about identifying risks and helping to create better and more appropriate mission-based solutions. Many of them are represented at this conference, including, in addition to TSWG, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Defense (DOD), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the InterAgency Board for Equipment Standardization and Interoperability (IAB), just to name a few.

Many of the participants and presenters at this conference come from the emergency responder user community – from the United States and abroad – including a broad spectrum of fire service, law enforcement, emergency medical and military personnel. International representation included Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore and the United Kingdom. Well represented are researchers from universities, government agencies and standards organizations who are working to create the scientific foundation to determine needed levels of protection, test methodologies and standards.

Manufacturers of PPE are participating both to better understand the needs of end-users and to provide updates on their development efforts to translate all this technology into useful tools. And, everyone is here to connect and collaborate to help emergency responders and warfighters get the job done more effectively and safely.

Here are some of the technologies and research that apply to the fire service.

Chemical Protection

We have come a long way from the one-size-fits-all response of wearing encapsulated Level A suits for all potential hazmat responses. Now we have the ability to determine the risk and provide more appropriate protective gear options that can be more widely distributed, improve user mission effectiveness and reduce the physiological burden on the user. Presentations at this conference addressed advances in chemical garments, chemical decision support systems, enhanced CBRN boots and improvements in respiratory protection.

One highlight in this area was a presentation by Dr. Mike Logan of the Queensland (Australia) Fire Department. Mike is researching the dangers of chemical compounds in smoke that are being absorbed by the skin. So, he isn’t just looking to know what is in the smoke. He wants to know what is getting on firefighters’ gear and what is getting on their skin. With that knowledge, he is looking to modify SOPs with respect to smoke exposures to lessen long-term health risks for firefighters.

Logan’s findings, to date, indicate that enough chemical compounds are being deposited on the gear and getting on the skin to be of concern. His recommendations for the fire service right now are stay out of the smoke, stay behind the curtain of water (many bad guys are highly soluble in water and therefore don’t get through) and shower as quickly as practical after direct smoke exposure. Permeation through the skin is a function of time, so showering promptly reduces the amount of chemicals that will be absorbed.

Logan is working on what all of this suggests concerning care and cleaning of gear. Don’t be surprised if the science shows that you should wash your gear after each smoke exposure.

CBRN Boots

Ashley Bradham, a graduate student researcher at North Carolina State University, discussed chemical permeation testing that compares the resistance of leather CBRN hazmat boots to the current rubber options. This new solution uses an athletic footwear construction for flexibility and fit while using a new CBRN barrier bootie and engineered leather that can be decontaminated in the field using current methods.

Lt. James Area of the Chemical/Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF) gave an overview of field trials of this new boot at Fairfax County Fire & Rescue and at CBIRF. The trials clearly showed the superiority in all measured aspects as well as overwhelming (100 percent) preference from all users.

These boots are currently being certified to the NFPA 1994 Class 2 standard. The next step for this technology is accelerated wear trials to determine the expected service life of the boots and to validate that the performance is maintained throughout their service life. Look for these boots to be available toward the end of 2011.

Physiological Burden

It is a widely held view of the user community that we need to reduce the physiological burden of PPE. It seems that everything that we do to increase protection levels adds weight, slows us down and makes us hotter. So, creating gear that is more flexible and helps us perform tasks more effectively is a must. And physiological monitoring of the personnel inside the gear is critical for assessment, situational awareness and rehab.

Dr. Nina Turner of NIOSH’s National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory (NPPTL) reported on phase three of the laboratory’s study of the effects of boot weight and flexibility on firefighter safety. In earlier phases of this study, NPPTL reported that lighter weight boots required less work, as measured by oxygen consumption, than heavier boots. But, in this earlier phase of the study, a correlation NPPTL also found between more flexibility and less work, which suggested the need for further study.

So, they took four different boots of approximately the same weight and measured them for flexibility. Then they put the two most flexible in one group and the two least flexible in a separate group and ran a series of agility tests over obstacles of different heights. The results clearly demonstrated that the more flexible boots cleared the hurdles by a greater margin than less flexible ones and that the trailing foot hit the obstacles less often in the more flexible boots. The conclusion was that flexibility matters, reduces workload and improves agility.

One interesting study by Dr. Gavin Horn from the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI) focused on the effects and importance of hydration. Dehydration is a serious contributor to cognitive impairment and can also facilitate cardiac events, so this is a subject worthy of considerable research and attention.

We all know that by the time you are thirsty, you are already moderately dehydrated, and if you are a firefighter doing active training or fire suppression, you are likely to become even more dehydrated. In fact, dehydration of as little as two percent of body weight can have serious and immediate effects on cognitive behavior and health.

In his study, Dr. Horn asked a group of firefighters coming in for training evolutions to make sure that they were hydrated beforehand. But, when he measured their hydration prior to starting any training, 94 percent of the group was moderately to severely dehydrated. He also pointed out that coffee and beer contribute to dehydration. Even if we aren’t prepared to rethink our relationship to these liquids, we really need to drink more water all day to reduce our risks of a host of avoidable outcomes.

Is Anyone Listening?

There isn’t room here to go into detail about these subjects or a long list of projects that are moving from research to practice to benefit emergency responders. But, you get the idea.

During the course of this conference, the InterAgency Board (IAB) and NIOSH led an input session about the most important PPE problems facing emergency responders today and what PPE will need to be like in the future. These and other federal agencies are actively looking for input from the user community on what its greatest needs are so that they can accurately prioritize the research and development agenda for your benefit.

So, next time you’re wondering if anyone is listening, you should know that some very smart and dedicated people are researching, developing and deploying technology to the rescue.

Editor’s note: Mark Mordecai is director of business development for Globe Manufacturing Company, where he leads Globe’s participation in numerous government and university research and development projects. He has been at the forefront of performance apparel and footwear development spanning a wide range of specialty markets, including outdoor, marine, team sports, fitness, law enforcement and fire/rescue.

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