Right kit for the right job

28 Apr Right kit for the right job

Whether fighting petrochemical fires, or undertaking technical rescue operations in confined spaces, having the right PPE for the job in hand is crucial for firefighters across the region. Gone are the days of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to PPE. Instead, PPE must be tailored to suit specific hazards and environments. Paul Gibson, International Sales Manager for Bristol Uniforms explains.

Over the last decade, firefighter PPE has changed significantly, with manufacturers striving to produce more lightweight, flexible and breathable solutions for freedom of movement and minimise heat stress to suit particular environments and operations.

Municipal, petrochemical and marine firefighters for example all have their very own unique set of circumstances and challenges to deal with and their PPE is tailored accordingly, and to the appropriate standards.

Municipal firefighters primarily fight structural and transport related fires, and often undertake search and rescue operations in confined spaces so it is important that their kit also protects from external risks associated with exposure to heat; flame lick; flash overs; and water ingress.

Whilst many of these attributes are also essential for firefighters in refineries and petrochemical plants, their garments must also provide the best mitigation against common injuries such as blistered feet, scalding and burns, especially to pressure points such as the wrists. They have to regularly deal with dense blankets of scalding steam, explosions and intensely hot chemical fires – very different to scenarios faced by municipal firefighters.

Marine firefighters on the other hand face a whole different set of challenges. They are usually up against small to medium fires, unpredictable weather conditions and extreme exposure to the elements, so it’s essential that their kit is fire retardant, ergonomic and keeps the elements at bay.

The key to effective and high performance PPE is choosing the right fabrics and designs that meet the required standards and suit the job in hand.

Fabrics

Choosing the right fabric for your PPE is the first step in providing optimum protection for the environment you are operating in. Leading international fibre and fabric manufacturers such as Hainsworth, WL Gore, PBI Performance Products and DuPont, have developed a number of highly specialised materials offering a range of benefits. Used in combination, these fabrics can offer resistance to fire, but also increased manoeuvrability, breathability and moisture control.

DuPont and PBI, for example, provide highly specialised and lightweight fibres for the outer-shell of a garment, which crucially provide outstanding air permeability and breathability, allowing metabolic heat to escape. These fibres are used in fabrics such as Hainsworth’s TITAN1220, which is popular in the Gulf states and combines the flame retardant properties of DuPonttm Nomex® and the thermal protection of DuPonttm Kevlar® to give garments outstanding durability even in the most demand situations.

Other fabric manufacturers such as WL Gore have introduced outer-shell fabrics more suited for search and rescue operations. Gore® Varde is one example, which is self-extinguishing and flame retardant, protecting firefighters from unexpected fires during a rescue operation. The durable waterproof and windproof qualities of the fabric, including low water pick-up and quick re-dry properties, also ensure protection from the elements on the outside whilst at the same time allowing sweat to pass through the fabric from the inside, keeping the wearer dry and reducing the risk of heat stress.

At Bristol, our firefighting garments combine an outer shell with an inner moisture barrier and liner system which draws moisture away from the skin, helping to keep the body cool and dry. Strenuous work in a hot environment causes profuse sweating, and if this sweat is not able to evaporate, the body is not able to cool itself effectively. WL Gore is the principal supplier of the most commonly specified moisture barriers which come in a variety of fabrics in the GORE-TEX® and CROSSTECH® ranges.

Designs

The design and style of a garment also plays a crucial role in contributing to a firefighter’s safety. Firefighters need to maintain a comfortable body temperature and stay dry. They are also likely to need to crawl, run, and climb to carry out the job in hand. Any protective clothing must be ergonomic and has to be able to work with them rather than against them.

Structural garments are favoured by National Civil Defence Forces across the region. Qatar and UAE have both opted for Bristol’s innovative XFlex range, which features a Gore CROSSTECH® moisture barrier, and Hainsworth’s TITAN1220 outer layer. Because of the type of job they do, this kit is perfect because it’s lightweight, breathable, and its ergonomic design with its distinctive sports styling means its durable and suitable for various hazardous roles.

Structural firefighting kit is also specified by oil and gas companies across the region. Bristol’s customers include Abu Dhabi Company (ADCO) who use our popular XFlex range. These firefighters also require suitable accessories, to protect the neck, wrists and feet from blisters, scalds and burns so manufacturers have developed specialist, compatible helmets, hoods, boots and gloves to provide extra protection where it’s needed most.

In addition, innovative designs have also been developed for more specific applications. For example, Search and Rescue operations often take place once the immediate danger of flame is removed, with firefighters entering enclosed and confined spaces where high temperatures and often toxic smoke are hazards. Our RescueFlex range offers physical protection at high risk points such as the knees and elbows, a high level of flexibility to afford manoeuvrability in confined spaces, and the coat and trouser can be zipped together to maintain protection when manoeuvring and crawling.

For technical rescue operations, Bristol can now offer new garments which are particularly lightweight and breathable which provide a high level of protection against wind, water and flame. Crucially, this will allow firefighters to work in confined spaces or in adverse conditions for longer and in more comfort.

For those firefighters on ships out at sea, specialist fleet suits are much more suited to the type of fires they encounter and the conditions they have to endure. Bristol’s fleet suit, with
its yellow, flame retardant outer layer and its fleece lined high collar, plain cuffs and combination zip and velcro front fastenings, makes it ergonomically efficient allowing easy movement in frequently difficult operating environments. Bespoke helmet, gloves and rubber fire boots ensure the firefighter is protected from head-to-toe.

Standards

To ensure the best level of protection, all PPE should conform to the required standards of performance. There are currently three major standard-setting bodies on the world stage, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN), and the International Standards Organisation (ISO). The European standard EN469:2005 is popular in the Gulf, but a number of companies also specify kit to the equivalent NFPA standard, NFPA1971:2013. Some producers with production platforms in the waters off the Gulf use fleet suits which must meet the European Marine Equipment Directive 96/98/EC (MarED) as well as the relevant EN standard with enhanced accreditation through the Wheelmark Certification.

Detailed specifications

Once the most suitable fabrics and designs have been selected, Civil Defence Forces and oil and gas companies often have particular additional requirements for their PPE, which can
simply be down to style or colour preference, or the accommodation of particular tools or equipment they need to carry out their operations.

These include alternative types of trouser front, leg openings and knee-pads, as well as cuff styles on fire coats. Other options include detachable linings, and knee and elbow reinforcements. Operational safety features such as integrated safety harnesses and drag rescue devices can also be specified.

Firefighter accessories including tools, lighting and communications equipment all have to be carried safely requiring a selection of loops, straps, D-rings, glove hooks as well as pockets and flaps which add further to the large number of permutations which form part of the bespoke nature of PPE design.

Finally, most fire services aim to present a professional and clearly recognisable identity, so particular colours and badging can be an important feature of PPE. This has led to the introduction of a wide range of fabric colours and the increased use of Velcro fixings for identification badges with logos, names and roles being individually catered for. Each FRS will have their own colour preference, with gold becoming increasingly popular in Australia along with navy and lime green, and most Asian countries opting for either gold or navy blue.

Called upon to handle an ever increasing variety of challenges, in contrasting climates and situations, today’s firefighters are certainly faced with complex environments in which to operate. By carefully studying these conditions and listening closely to customers, PPE designers and fabric manufacturers will continue to work together to develop innovative solutions to meet these specific needs, and create optimum garments for maximum protection and comfort.

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