We’ve Got You Covered: The Evolution Of Bunker Gear

NFPA standards went into effect on Aug. 17
NFPA standards on structural and proximity gear went into effect on Aug. 17 (Total Fire Group Photo)
All turnout coats will have integrated webbing or rope drag rescue devices.
Under new standards all turnout coats will have integrated webbing or rope drag rescue devices.

An evolution is taking place in the way that bunker gear will look and perform. Requirements for bunker clothing, including coats, pants, helmets, gloves, footwear, and hoods, are governed by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1971, Standard on Protective Ensemble for Structural and Proximity Protective Ensembles. This standard has been revised recently revised with the new 2007 edition going into effect on August 17, 2006. The new edition includes a number of significant changes intended to offer increased firefighter protection for both structural and proximity firefighting. Understanding these changes will help firefighters and their departments take advantage of the new requirements to obtain better gear.

One significant and readily apparent change in new NFPA 1971 standard is that it now addresses both structural and proximity gear. Proximity firefighting protective clothing was formerly addressed in NFPA 1976. Since most of the requirements were similar, it made sense to combine the two standards. The largest differences exist in proximity firefighting requirements mandating an aluminized outer shell for garments, helmets, gloves, and shrouds and dictating increased radiant heat protection. There is also no requirement for high visibility trim on garments, or the application of a total heat loss or breathability requirement for garments.

Standard Reformatted

Organizationally, the standard has been reformatted. Key definitions and all certification requirements have been collected into new, separate chapters. References and other cited standards now appear up front. The design and performance criteria chapters also use a new format showing the requirements that apply to both structural and proximity elements (garments, helmets, gloves, footwear, hoods, or shrouds) in one section, the specific requirement for structural elements in a second section, and specific requirements for proximity elements in a third section.

One of the largest changes in NFPA 1971 was the creation of an option to define full ensemble protection from chemical agents, biological agents, and radiological/nuclear particulate (CBRN) hazards that exist following a terrorism incident. These criteria are optional but when applied must address either a full structural or proximity firefighting ensemble.

With assistance from the U.S. Government’s Department of Homeland Security through the Technical Support Working Group, the committee developed the CBRN option to include a series of rigorous design, performance, and labeling criteria to be met in addition to the base requirements of the standard. This option can only be applied when the manufacturer provides a full ensemble of garments, hoods, gloves, and footwear and specifies its use with NIOSH approved CBRN SCBA (the helmet is excluded if it is not integral to CBRN protection).

Moreover, the standard restricts simply placing overalls on top of ensembles. Instead, the CBRN protection must be built into the clothing system to be available any time, and the additional design and materials used in a CBRN ensemble cannot negate any other performance requirements normally mandated for either structural or proximity protective elements.

For demonstrating CBRN protection, the new edition of NFPA 1971 includes a series of new tests and criteria to evaluate the entire ensemble’s integrity, including interfacing areas, to prevent against inward leakage of chemical agents, biological agents, or radiological/nuclear particulates.

There are new tests to assess the effectiveness of barrier materials against chemical warfare agents, toxic industrial chemicals, and biological toxins. These tests are run on materials after they have been subjected to extensive preconditioning to simulate wear and use over the expected gear service life.

An important consequence of the new CBRN option is that the committee had to consider innovative design features that would lead to improved interfaces between the ensemble elements.

In opening up the design criteria from the traditionally-based requirements, some of the new features now found necessary for CBRN ensembles will be permitted for use in normal structural and proximity fighting protective element designs, creating protection benefits for ordinary firefighting. Some of these features are further described below.

Drag Rescue Devices

A number of new or revised requirements in the standard will be very obvious for garments. The most noticeable difference will be that all coats will be outfitted with a drag rescue device, or DRD for short. This feature is an integrated system of webbing, rope, or other material built into the coat to permit the rescue of an incapacitated firefighter. The DRD must be designed such that a portion of the device is accessible from the coat’s exterior and can be readily grabbed by other firefighters without interference from the firefighter’s SCBA. The DRD must permit rapid deployment and allow a firefighter to be dragged horizontally over a specified distance without breaking.

The materials used in DRD construction are also subject to certain breaking strength requirements. The DRD is not permitted to be used for any vertical operations, such as lowering a firefighter from a building, or for self rescue. Industry has responded with various DRD designs. Departments should scrutinize how a particular DRD will work with their SCBA, its deployment ease, any potential for interference in wearing it, and its overall effectiveness of removing a downed firefighter in cramped space.

A number of design criteria changes will be made to permit ensemble design flexibility. While many modifications were originally intended to foster CBRN design innovations, the committee decided to extend these changes to the base ensembles as well. These changes will take the form of integrated hoods and other new interfaces that potentially provide better protection for structural and proximity firefighting.

Lower Coat Collars

Additional changes were made in the design criteria. Coats will now have a lower collar with a 3-inch minimum height compared to 4 inches in the 2000 edition of NFPA 1971. Some variations will also be permitted in addressing trim. Gaps in trim are now allowed as long as the gaps don’t exceed an eighth of an inch and the trim appears to be continuous from a distance of 100 feet. In addition, the bottom of the lower trim band will now be required to be within an inch of the sleeve hem.

There will also be some material requirements that should be evident. The minimum garment composite breathability requirement has increased. A total heat loss (THL) value of 205 W/m2 will now be required compared to the existing requirement of 130 W/m2.

This change eliminates some current moisture barriers and heavy weight composites, but will afford a higher uniform level of stress reduction for structural firefighting protective ensembles. The conductive and compressive heat resistance (CCHR) requirements applied to garment shoulder and knee reinforcements have also been raised. The change’s net effect will be that single outer shell reinforcements for knees and 3-layer composites for shoulders will no longer be acceptable in garment design. More extensive layering will be required for these reinforcement areas. A new ultraviolet light degradation requirement for garment moisture barriers will also change the types of moisture barriers available in the marketplace.

Helmets must still be supplied with faceshields or goggles, but goggles are no longer required to be attached to the helmet. This change will help extend the service life of goggles. Helmet flame resistance testing will now include the application of flame at the inside of the brim at the goggle attachment points. This testing will provide an evaluation of helmet components not previously evaluated.

The ear covers provided with helmets must now meet a thermal protective performance (TPP) requirement of 20 or more. Previously, there was no insulation requirement for this part of the helmet. The new insulation requirement is consistent with the minimum TPP hood and wristlet requirement resulting in more robust ear covers.

Longer Gloves

Gloves must now extend a total of 2 inches beyond the wrist crease whether with a gauntlet or wristlet, representing a change in the standard to improve the interface between gloves and coat sleeves. Two additional sizes of gloves have been added (XX-Small and XX-Large) to accommodate a wider range of hand dimensions.

The conductive heat resistance test as applied to gloves will be done at an elevated pressure (2 psi versus 0.5 psi) on the glove back and finger composite materials. This change will affect the insulation thickness on the back side of the gloves without affecting the palm side, which has a greater impact on glove dexterity.

A new test has been added to measure the liner retention in gloves. The previous test is maintained as a donning ease test after the gloves have been laundered. The new test physically measures the force required to separate the liner from the glove interior and will prevent liner separation from glove shells, particularly from extended use and washing.

The measured height of footwear must be a minimum of 10 inches (compared to 8 inches in the existing edition). This height is now measured from the boot interior with the insole in place to the boot’s lowest point where waterproof performance is provided. The measurement does not allow for stitched through pull tabs and other features on leather boots, which could cause an area of water penetration to be included in the height measurement.

Footwear Requirements

The overall effect of the new height requirement and measurement technique adds several inches to the total footwear height when measured from ground level (some footwear styles may increase up to 4 inches in height in order to comply with these requirements). Implementing this requirement will eliminate several footwear styles from the marketplace and have a dramatic effect on the design and availability of lace-up footwear.

The puncture resistance plate used in the sole of footwear to prevent nail puncture will now be subjected to a flex cracking test to assess its durability consistent with other industry footwear standards.

Hoods are required to cover the top of the head where the helmet is positioned. However, thermal protective performance (TPP) testing applies only to the sides and neck areas of the hood. Hood cleaning shrinkage will now be measured for the whole hood as compared to being done on the material only as done in the existing edition. This testing approach change may permit other types of materials to be used in hoods that have previously shown relatively high cleaning shrinkage levels.

The new standard has already been promulgated and became effective on August 17. New gear can no longer be certified to the old edition, however, there is a grace period until March 1, 2007, that permits manufacturers to sell old gear manufactured and certified to the 2000 edition.

After March 1, 2007, all newly purchased gear must carry product labels and certification marks that show compliance with the 2007 edition of NFPA 1971. The certification organizations do not allow gear in the field to be recertified to new editions.

The new edition will bring improvements to the protective clothing for both structural and proximity firefighting. Yet, the process for improving the standards that govern firefighter protective clothing will continue to seek opportunities that increase the safety and health of firefighters that rely on the NFPA 1971 standard to establish minimum protection levels.

The NFPA committees responsible for this work are always looking for suggestions and proposals for any new changes to address issues as they emerge from the field. Your support of the process is seen as a way of guaranteeing the best possible protection for the fire service.

Editor’s Note: Jeffrey O. Stull is President of International Personnel Protection, a consulting firm that provides expertise on the design, evaluation, selection and use of protective clothing.

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