Trends in Firefighter PPE

In May 2011, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) conducted its 2nd National Fire Service Research Foundation Agenda Symposium. The “Tools and Equipment” focus group (composed of a diverse cross section of the fire service) identified the primary research need as an “Assessment of current personal protective equipment (entire ensemble) performance, functionality and related safety features for today’s fire environment.” With that primary need in mind, here is a look at what’s expected for PPE in the coming months and years.

Webcast: Creating a PPE Evaluation & Selection Process

Garments
As has been the case for the past several years, there do not appear to be any imminent breakthroughs, industry-changing new fibers, fabrics or technologies related to garments. Also, no changes in the minimum thermal protective performance (TPP) and total heat loss (THL) levels of protective coats, trousers, and hoods are currently being considered. Nonetheless, expect continued incremental improvements in personal protective equipment (PPE).

DuPont’s Dr. Rich Young says he sees a trend toward higher-strength outer shell materials. He also confirmed that DuPont will cease manufacture of its popular Nomex filament yarn by the end of this year. Nomex filament yarn has been used in premium facecloths for the slickness it provides. Yet, he says the industry will have equal or better replacement products without a delay in production.

Kirk Owen of TenCate Protective Fabrics–long-time leading fabric supplier to the turnout gear manufacturers–says his company will be offering facecloths made with Kevlar filament yarn and inherently wicking yarn. The Kevlar yarn will provide slickness and the inherently wicking yarn will improve wicking and moisture management. Owen believes TenCate’s re-engineered facecloths will provide improved performance. He notes that purchasers seem to be showing more interest in the durability of their gear components.

Other garment trends to watch for:

  • Better fitting garments; new anthropometric (body measurement) studies of firefighters will lead to increased attention to sizing and improved garment patterns that add to firefighter mobility.
  • Soil-release fabrics and anti-microbial fabrics.
  • The emergence of smart fabrics with embedded electronic circuitry and adaptive fabrics that adapt to the environment of the wearer.

Finally, look for growing attention to undergarments for firefighters. The undergarments will have the wicking characteristics and anti-microbial features of athletic undergarments. In addition, they will have heat-resistant characteristics, making them safe to wear. Many current undergarments have an extremely low melting point and should never be worn for firefighting.  

Gloves
Considerable research is ongoing to improve firefighting gloves in terms of thermal protection and dexterity. One key to thermal protection research is the capability to do “whole glove” testing. North Carolina State University’s (NCSU) Textile Protection and Comfort Center (T-PACC) has developed Pyrohands, unique because it has movable fingers, to study thermal protection. T-PACC also has a “sweating” thermal hand and several instruments for testing glove dexterity. The NFPA Technical Committee responsible for setting the minimum standards for firefighting gloves has an active task group that is working closely with NCSU. The outcome of this research will lead to better hand protection with improved fit and dexterity.

Boots
Expect continued improvement in the “athletic” fit and feel of firefighter boots. Aside from SCBA, no part of a firefighter’s head-to-toe protective envelope has improved more than footwear in the past 20 years. Many veteran firefighters remember the all-rubber, bulky, sloppy-fitting, heavy, non-flexible and small-heeled boots that would be totally unacceptable in today’s market.

SCBA
Unfortunately, the development of the “flat pack” SCBA is currently at a standstill. The flat pack uses pressure-vessel technology to reduce the profile of the SCBA, eliminating the large air cylinder. If ever developed, this design will provide a lighter, more efficient and lower-profile SCBA.

The IAFF’s Rich Duffy, a champion of the product, says there are three remaining obstacles: the current configuration is about six inches too long, it is too rigid, and it does not allow for body heat release from the firefighter’s back. Duffy is seeking more funding to continue research into overcoming these obstacles.
In the meantime, manufacturers have turned their focus to the “weakest link” in the PPE ensemble: the SCBA facepiece lens. One of the more immediate improvements in SCBA will be improved facepiece lens thermal resistance. The new lens should be available within a year.

Dan Rossos, chair of the NFPA Technical Committee for SCBA requirements, says that of the entire firefighter’s protective envelope, the SCBA facepiece lens should be the “last soldier standing” when it comes to thermal assault. However, Rossos cautions that once the lens issue is resolved, another thermal “weak link” will emerge. Although the fuel loads in today’s firefighting environment are destroying PPE, Rossos says that firefighters’ bodies are so protected that we do not feel the heat until it might be too late. He strongly emphasizes that firefighters need to learn more about the changing fire environment, fire behavior and the limitations of PPE.

Another potentially controversial issue to watch is a proposed change to the SCBA “End of Service Time Indicator” (EOSTI) from 25% to 33% of remaining air supply. And in other news, NIOSH has finally recognized buddy breathers, or “Emergency Escape Support Breathing Systems” (EESBS).  

Electronics
Without doubt, the biggest trends in PPE will be related to electronics. According to Bruce Varner, chair of the NFPA PPE Electronics technical committee, Globe’s WASP (Wearable Advanced Sensor Platform) [link to http://www.firefighternation.com/article/technology/globe-showcases-physiological-monitoring-and-tracking-system] is a prime example of how electronics will emerge on the fireground. WASP provides physiological monitoring through a base-layer T-shirt and a firefighter locator sensor worn on the belt of turnout pants. The physiological monitoring will provide information such as EKG, heart rate, breathing rate, skin temperature, activity level, exertion level and posture (lying down, standing, crawling, etc.).

Varner also says that we will soon see more robust portable radios for the fire service. In regards to interoperability, Varner says that the technology is already available; the challenge to the fire service is to learn about the “almost infinite capabilities” of portable radios. (Think in terms of smartphones.) 

Varner cautions that technology will not replace the basic instincts and knowledge required to remain safe and effective on an emergency scene. However, because we live in an electronic world, we still need to embrace the new electronic technology, as it will prove to be a valuable tool.

Helmets
There is unlimited potential to improve firefighter helmets. Unfortunately, for cultural and traditional reasons, there is currently no market demand for major improvements.

Use & Maintenance
Not to be lost in a discussion about the trends in PPE is its use and maintenance. There’s a huge void in firefighter understanding of the limitations of PPE. With a growing body of knowledge surrounding the health hazards of dirty PPE, more departments are placing higher emphasis on inspection, cleaning, repair, storage and retirement of PPE.

A Must-Attend PPE Event
For more information about the trends and understanding of PPE, be sure to attend the F.I.E.R.O. Fire PPE Symposium, March 4—6, 2013, in Raleigh, N.C. A highlight of the symposium will be a tour of N.C. State University’s Textile Protection and Comfort Center (T-PACC). T-PACC is the premier firefighter PPE research facility in the world. The Symposium will offer presentations by industry experts, one-on-one time with manufacturers and networking with peers. Information and registration is available at www.fireppesymposium.com.

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