PPE Manufacturers Focus on Weight and Strength

By Alan M. Petrillo

Personal protective equipment (PPE) manufacturers are making firefighter turnout gear lighter and stronger by using a variety of fabrics yet still are able to provide the level of safety necessary to protect the users from heat, flame, and other hazards.

Exterior Strength

Structural firefighting turnout gear typically consists of three layers: an outer shell, a thermal liner, and a moisture barrier. Michael Layton, product manager for body protection for Honeywell First Responder Products, says the turnout’s outer shell, designed for strength and protection, is the area where improved fabrics can be used to trim weight yet provide added strength.

An outer shell that incorporates a filament yarn, such as PBI Max, which uses Kevlar®, or Vectran®, a fiber spun from liquid crystal polymer, will have a much higher strength than a spun yarn, Layton says. “When you incorporate those kinds of products into a spun yarn, it gives a higher strength to the fabric,” he notes.

Lion uses a twill weave with different fiber combinations in its turnout gear
Lion uses a twill weave with different fiber
combinations in its turnout gear to balance
the need for lighter weight against flame,
heat, and cut protection. (Photo courtesy of

Layton says Honeywell recently launched a meta-aramid product called Bolt that incorporates another filament yarn into the fabric mix-a filament yarn on the outside of the material and spun Kevlar on the inside. “The filament is very slick and smooth so it sheds water and dirt,” Layton says. “The other nice property is that because it’s so slick, it doesn’t resist movement in the armpits and crotch when the firefighter is swinging his arms, walking, or crawling.”

Layton points out that Bolt is made specifically for turnout coats and pants and is available in all five of Honeywell’s turnout lines: Morning Pride, Ultra Motion, Ranger, Vectra SL, and VE Gear. In addition, he notes that Honeywell is working on a new version of its UltraFlex thermal liner that provides a higher slickness factor for ease of mobility in the turnout gear and greater moisture absorption capability.

Patricia Freeman, technical services manager for Globe Manufacturing Co., says outer shells have always been the first line of defense for firefighters in turnout gear. “This is the layer that’s subjected to direct heat sources and flame impingement,” Freeman says. “Most outer shells in turnout gear primarily use Kevlar fibers as a blend-at least 60 percent Kevlar-and the rest either a PBI or PBO fiber.”

Globe Manufacturing Co. uses a fabric blend for its turnout gear outer shells
Globe Manufacturing Co. uses a fabric blend for its turnout gear
outer shells that consists of 60 percent Kevlar and the rest either a
PBI or PBO fiber. (Photo courtesy of Globe Manufacturing Co.)

PBI is extremely flame-resistant and has very good thermal stability, she points out. “The Kevlar gives the outer shell a lot of strength and also contributes to the heat and flame resistance,” she adds. “PBO also is extremely heat-resistant and very strong.” PBI fibers are made by PBI Performance Products, and PBO fibers are made under the Millenia XT brand by TenCate, she says.

Interior Innovations

Freeman says that for moisture barriers, Globe has been able to reduce the weight to 4½ ounces per square yard of fabric, where the norm is up to six ounces per square yard. “We’re using moisture barriers with a Teflon® type film laminated to a lightweight aramid-based substrate, either a pajama check or a spun lace, which is breathable,” she says.

When it comes to thermal liners, Freeman notes there’s not been as much change in turnouts as with the other two layers. “Typically it’s a face cloth attached to either a spun lace or needle punched backing,” she says. “One of the options in our turnouts is TenCate’s Quantum 3DSL2i material that uses two layers of spun lace, one of which is waffled so it traps air without adding weight but provides more flexibility and comfort.”

Karen Lehtonen, vice president of innovation and product management for Lion, says all firefighters are looking to reduce the weight of the turnout gear they wear. “They tell us they want something lighter but without sacrificing the level of protection they currently have,” Lehtonen says. “You can take out weight by removing fabric but then have to look at a new way of constructing the fabric.”

One of the ways to do so is by using a twill weave that can add strength and different fiber combinations to balance out the need for lighter weight vs. strength, flame protection, and durability. “We sell a lot of turnout gear with PBI Max made with Kevlar fibers in the outer shell,” she says. “It’s lighter, has a twill weave, is more flexible in the garment, and thus is more comfortable. The garment moves with the firefighter instead of being stiffer, so it is stress reducing too.”

Honeywell First Responder Products recently launched Bolt, a fabric made for turnout coats and pants
Honeywell First Responder Products recently launched Bolt, a fabric
made for turnout coats and pants. It is a meta-aramid product that
incorporates a slick and smooth filament yarn on the outside to shed
water and dirt and Kevlar on the inside for strength and flame durability.
(Photo courtesy of Honeywell First Responder Products.)

Haley Fudge, Lion’s director of marketing, points out that Lion’s Isodri moisture management system plays a large role in moisture protection and moisture removal in its turnout gear. “Isodri is an outer shell, moisture barrier, thermal barrier, and wristlets system that works together to reduce the water in turnouts,” Fudge says. “The outer shell is treated with Teflon F-PPE to reduce moisture intake; the Crosstech 3 Layer moisture barrier allows body heat to escape in the form of vapor but keeps liquid out; and the thermal barrier is treated with Teflon F to shed moisture generated by the body and maintain high thermal performance.”

Tom Foley, end use marketing manager for TenCate Protective Fabrics, says his company makes several outer shell fabrics, taking fibers and blending them to make yarns. “For instance, in outer shells, we blend aramid fibers like Nomex® and para-aramid fibers like Kevlar and Technora® that give added strength and durability and protect from thermal assault,” Foley says.

Foley points out that fire departments should conduct risk assessments to determine how they want their PPE to perform. “Reducing weight is important, but you have to put it into perspective,” he says. “Do you need to save a few ounces or half a pound in your overall PPE garment?” he asks. “You have to do the risk assessment to help you determine that.”

Millenia XTL is TenCate’s newest and lightest fabric on the market, Foley says. It’s a para-aramid and PBI fiber mixture that is fashioned into a six-ounce (per square yard) outer shell fabric, Foley points out. “A lot of outer shells are seven ounces to 7½ ounces per yard. Lightening the firefighter’s load, even by a few ounces, can make a difference.”

Foley notes that the face cloth on TenCate’s thermal liners also has been changed to help firefighters move better. “Our face cloth on thermal liners has become slicker, which lessens the frictions and restrictions firefighters have in their gear,” he says. “Our Quantum 3D allows for a greater degree of lubricity in the garment’s thermal barrier face cloth.”

Megan Morris, marketing spokeswoman for Dupont, says the fire service is where she sees a lot of innovation, and in terms of PPE many of those innovations include Dupont’s Nomex and Kevlar brands. “Nomex performs well by blocking heat, and Kevlar is cut-resistant and stays flexible when exposed to fire,” Morris says. “So, 60 percent Kevlar and 40 percent Nomex has a high heat durability and cut resistance.”

Morris points out that one of the better ways of blocking heat in a turnout garment is by using multiple spun layers that provide greater insulation from heat. “What Dupont pioneered is a systems approach where all the components worth together to optimize performance,” she says. “We’ve looked to interface areas, like wristlets, that are a typical area for injury and have minimized the gaps to give the optimal protection for firefighters.”

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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