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Investing In Your Protection and Protecting Your Investment

The importance of correct purchasing considerations and the associated dynamics for firefighters Personal Protective Equipment/Personal Protective Clothing (PPE/PPC). This article deals with the most important asset that a fire service has, its Firefighters. Agencies invest considerable amounts of money in training, resources, operational readiness and a range of issues, but often look for major cost savings in the last line of defence of firefighters, their PPE.

The critical importance on “focusing on the cost of the project, rather than the cost of the purchase”, cannot be emphasized enough. The cost efficiencies that are achievable when buying smarter and less often, is often the difference between quality components and good manufacturing that lasts, and poor protection and frequent replacement.

A key feature is to have a lightweight durable system. This is easily determined when dry, but another important factor to consider is its weight when it is wet. Just how much water does your ensemble absorb? At a kilogram per litre, this becomes an important consideration. In an upcoming article I will expand on the critical importance of protecting the air layer in the thermal barrier from absorbing this water, especially given the fact that water transfers heat about 21 times faster than air. “Wet v Dry” TPP tests* on turnout gear indicate that your gear can lose about one third of its protective performance if the liner is wetted with only two grams of water while the shell is dry. * Biotherm Test # 113182,et al.

Therefore a vital component of a Structural Firefighting Ensemble is the moisture barrier. The subtle difference between a good quality and performing moisture barrier, and a poor one, can see the barrier disintegrate into a cracked or even powdered mess in the base of the jacket in less than half the life expectancy of the garment, leaving the firefighter venerable to injury or worse. Good moisture barriers on the other hand can assist in protecting the thermal barrier so it continues to protect against heat and flame. They can also protect against a base range of chemicals, water ingress and blood borne pathogens, and still be highly “breathable”. While the term “breathable” suggests the passage of air, the science of good meta-bolic heat release in Structural Firefighting PPC is more about the management of moisture and evaporative transfer. In my next article entitled “What Does Your PPC Protect You Against”, I will expand on this question further.

Outer shells which serve to protect the “engine room” of the ensemble need to be a quality component and pass the relevant tests within the Standard, and have good post burn strength and flexibility and compliment the other components which make up the science of protection of today’s firefighters.

Subtle things like the difference between single or double stitching and thread quality, can see the difference between high repair frequency and therefore down time of the garment
or being in service and protecting the firefighter.

Image courtesy of Mark L. Gribble.

Image courtesy of Mark L. Gribble.

High lubricity inner linings which assist wicking water away and help in allowing the liner to not stick to the firefighter, play a role in the firefighter’s comfort factor. However one of the major factors in designing a stress free clothing system is the ergonomic features built into the ensemble.

While a set of garments may look desirable and made up of some good components, the ability of the clothing to allow the unrestricted movement of the firefighter, during the wide range of challenges of an emergency incident is very desirable. There are many innovative features built into the design to assist in the “Action” of the garments. “Action” in the back of the knees, different cuts and shapes, various sleave shapes and designs and a range of other features all contribute to the firefighter being able to maintain a less stressful and balanced physiology.

Braces or suspenders on the over pants or bunker pants need to have good elastic memory, so the trousers don’t sit too low and wear out on the bottom hem. They also need to be of a configuration and design that they don’t fall off your shoulders and are easily adjusted. Some are even including cooling mechanisms.

However like all things new and innovative, the vital balance of lightweight, functional and breathable needs to prevail. It becomes all too easy to think the inclusion of every piece of available technology should be included. More is not always better.

This is when a forensic analysis of an agreed risk assessment which has key end-user input, provides the balance required. It is very easy to start with good components, but buy adding too many features you may run the risk of “over engineering” the entire ensemble. Sometimes these features are added by the manufacturer in the interest of appearance, in the hope of providing a “market edge”, or even increased sales. The bottom line is, be discerning, and if a given feature adds value in functionality and performance, and maintains compliance with your objective, risk assessment and key criteria, then it may be a worthwhile inclusion.

Given the requirement for the ensemble to facilitate the metabolic heat release of the firefighter, sizing is a key requirement when purchasing.

Those that choose a very snug fit, often negate some of the ergonomic features and breathability.

The anthropometrical needs of a given fire service can have a very broad range of sizing requirements. All of these need to be catered for from male to female, from tall to short, from stocky to thin, and still achieve the compatibility and functionality that is required by the ever increasing demands of tomorrows firefighter. Part of that compatibility consideration is how the Station Uniform compliments the performance of the Structural Firefighting Ensemble or any other PPC.

In addition to these standard features, technology and associated telemetry is helping to keep firefighters safe. Structural Firefighting PPC with built-in Thermal Sensor Technology (TST) delivers lightweight and flexible “intelligent” firefighter clothing that indicates when temperature increase, and provides flashing alerts.

In a previous article I spoke about the vital importance of compatibility. This is one of the most important considerations and relates to the compatibility of associated PPE and PPC, worn in conjunction with the Structural Firefighting clothing. It also relates to the interface areas on the body where items of PPC/PPE meet the clothing and are required to maintain that overlap or interface of protection. It also refers to having all firefighters who are required to work together in the “Hot” zone of structural firefighting incident, to have the same
level of protection.

Therefore a comprehensive knowledge of the performance level of the current PPC is vital when purchasing the next generation of PPC. Some departments have used a “Transitional” approach of only replacing or upgrading to the new ensemble on an “as needs basis”, even when there are different performance levels in the components of the old and new PPC. This runs the risk of two firefighters working in the same hostile fire environment with different levels of performance in their PPC. Sometimes these different sets of PPC look the same from the outside.

This places an unfair burden not only on the firefighters, but the Incident Commander who is trying to deliver a consistent safe Dynamic Risk Assessment for all the Firefighting staff at the emergency incident.

Due to the increasing financial pressures on fire services, and sometimes diverse numbers of fire services in a given area, there has been some attempts at the “Collaborative Purchasing” model, where a number of fire services combine to make a collective purchase. In theory this has the potential to save money on the purchase and the savings could be delivered back to the safety of front line operations. However it becomes more critical in getting the decision correct and sustainable for the future, only because getting it wrong will adversely affect more firefighters. Therefore the involvement of key stakeholders is vital, and should include a high percentage of well-informed “end-user” representation at the decision making table.

We have touched on just some of the considerations on selection of PPC and if you get that part right, then the next step is ensuring that you are “Protecting Your Investment”.

Image courtesy of Mark L. Gribble.

Image courtesy of Mark L. Gribble.

Protecting Your Investment
During the life of your PPC, how do you know if it is still “Fit For Purpose”? In fact how do you even determine the life of garments that are worn in high use areas compared to lower use areas of your fire service?

Some time ago people would simply make an estimate based partly on previous history of the garment, and the time it lasted. A more refined approach is not based solely on time, but on “wash cycles”. This is obviously dependent on having a good tracking system which records when the garment is washed and an assurance that the washing requirements stipulated by the manufacturer, is strictly followed. Correct laundering regimes, is one of the key criteria for protecting your investment and therefore continuing to provide the correct level of protection to the firefighter. As in all things there are god and bad practices. As I visit fire departments around the world I am occasionally surprised to find firefighters still taking their structural Firefighting PPC home and washing it in the home washing machine with the rest of their laundry. This out dated practice drastically increases the risk of the carcinogenic contaminates from the dirty PPC, infiltrating into the other clothing and undesirable particulate residues remaining in the washing machine for the next load. Some recent studies are also looking at the dermal and respiratory pathway of exposure to these toxic properties, not only on the fireground, but also by poor storage, transportation and laundering practices. Many advances have been made over the last 10 years in dedicated laundering facilities and in practices that focus on the correct temperature, washing speed, cycle and particularly cleaning agent used to better clean and protect the garments. While the correct drying regimes may take a little longer, it is just as important as the rest of the process.

Some ensembles are designed with a removable inner liner so they can wash the outer and inner components separately. This is done so as not to mix the contaminates usually found on the outer shell, in with the moisture barrier, thermal barrier and inner lining. It also provides the extra benefit of being able to better inspect the internal components of the ensemble. If this is your choice then the attachment mechanism needs to ensure that they line up exactly with no gaps and that the ID/Tracking Code is on each item of clothing and is such that it helps to ensure that the correct components are reassembled together. Additionally there needs to be good operational and procedural controls in place, to ensure that they are always worn together when engaging in Structural Firefighting. Some manufacturers have chosen a small indicator tab which is a contrasting colour and is easily visible on the fireground, which shows that both components are present.

Combine this with a regular and comprehensive inspection regime, it should deliver a garment that is fit for purpose. A valuable fit for purpose indicator during the inspection regime is a periodic test of the moisture barrier (if present) by a static water test. This can be done at station and the details are listed in the NFPA Standard 1851-2014 Edition, Chapter 12.2.

In fact Standards most often devote a considerable portion of the document on such things as Selection, Use, Care and Maintenance (SCUAM) and detail a number of criteria to enhance the life of the garment as well as assess the “fit for purpose” status of the gear.

So if all else fails it is often your PPE/PPC that will deliver you home after an accidental encounter with the ever-increasing hazards of our job. I have listened to many fine case study presentations delivered by the IAFF at their Redmond’s Symposium, researched many incident debriefs and heard a number of testimonials of just how close firefighters have come when the dynamic environment that we deal with changes in an instant. They all emphasis the importance of good “Investment In your Protection” and “Protecting Your Investment”.

Stay safe until the next article in this series of “Last Line Of Defence” asks “What Does Your PPC Protect You Against?

For more information, email markgribble7@bigpond.com

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International Standards Organisation (ISO) and Standards Australia representative for firefighting PPE.