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Old hard-hat type helmets are being used for Bushfire fighting, when AS/NZS 1801 Type 3 specification helmets have been available for 20 years. Image courtesy of Pacific Helmets.

Not all PPE is born equal!

In the world of PPE for structural and bushland firefighting, I am not yet aware of counterfeit PPE, but what we are all increasingly aware of is essential components of PPE for fire fighters are being both advertised and verbally promoted by salesmen in Australia and New Zealand as either compliant or certified to AS/NZS Standards. All this when so far they are patently not capable of meeting our Australasian Standards.

However, having said that I see no evidence of counterfeit PPE, I did see at the recent Interschutz exhibition in Hannover Germany, examples of Chinese made structural fire helmets claiming to be certified to EN443:2008. Perhaps only the experienced eye could detect the obvious design inadequacies in these helmets which are obviously of such poor design that there is no-way they could be certified to EN 443. But this should alert us all to the fact that before too long it is likely that we shall see some of these questionable helmets and probably other clothing showing up in our neighbourhoods.

None of this is new of course, and recent examples of deficient PPE are not hard to find. Our Indian market Distributor tells me of a recent Mumbai fire where not only the Chief Officer, but his immediate deputy and another senior fire officer all died of injuries suffered in a major fire. This brought to mind the Mumbai tender that sourced this PPE since it had been our view at the time that it was a completely suspect process. The tender mysteriously disappeared before we could tender product, the products were purchased somehow, and I am told by our very reputable Chinese distributor, that while he made the garments for the samples, his was not the clothing actually purchased! The consequent result is now obvious. We understand an enquiry is underway.

Another example where we did tender helmets was some years ago in Taiwan. The RFP went in, the lowest tender (not from our Distributor) for a complete ensemble of PPE (Helmet, tunic, etc.) was US$420.00. At the time our NFPA 1971 Structural fire helmet would have been quoted at about $200.00 alone, so to meet the tender pricing the clothing would have had to be costed at less than $200. It’s difficult to imagine how it would have complied to NFPA!

Back in Taiwan then, the process was that all tenderers were given the chance to participate in a kind of ‘Dutch auction’ to see if we could beat the lowest bid. Again, I understand the outcome was that it was found fraudulent fabrics had been offered and someone was likely to go to prison.

I fear for the first-responders at the recent Tianjin fire and explosion in North China. What PPE did they have? From social media it appears that most the first responders were killed and the backup responders had little or no appropriate PPE at all!

This type of cap-style AS/NZS 1801 Type 1 helmet still in use in Australia when Type 3 helmets designed for Bushfire operations have been available for 20+ years”. Image courtesy of Pacific Helmets.

This type of cap-style AS/NZS 1801 Type 1 helmet still in use in Australia when Type 3 helmets designed for Bushfire operations have been available for 20+ years”. Image courtesy of Pacific Helmets.

Our Australian/New Zealand Standards for PPE require our active defence and support now, because they are under threat. There seems to be no willingness to promote both the strength of the work that goes on around writing the PPE Standards, and/or the intestinal fortitude to identify the products and suppliers of PPE that masquerade as compliant, but obviously are not. They never show up with bona- fide laboratory test reports or genuine certification from reputable Notified Bodies.

In the European scene there have been several instances where we have asked our Notified Body to verify the certification of a European manufactured helmet, but there is no formal process to do this. Consequently, when we subject a number of EN 443 helmets claiming certification, they fail important physical destructive tests. There are similar products in the US market claiming NFPA compliance, so Europe is not alone.

Our concern is that some EN 443/2008 helmet suppliers are claiming compliance AS/NZS 4067/2012. Almost without exception, they will fail basic physical and even visual inspection tests. This is a concern because as we watch the advertisements for these helmets, they sometimes imply compliance to AS/NZS 4067, and we understand the salesmen frequently claim the products will meet our Standards. Perhaps it’s ignorance of the design requirements for AS/NZS certified helmets?

Certainly the agencies and potential buyers of these products should question the claims carefully. Our reply to these assertions is “we will show you our test reports and certifications, if you will show us yours.”

Typical of damage to a tested helmet shell after impact tests. Image courtesy of Pacific Helmets.

Typical of damage to a tested helmet shell after impact tests. Image courtesy of Pacific Helmets.

Our staff and Australian agents have pointed out to me numerous other examples of PPE which have been purchased by fire agencies and other industrial plants which do not comply to AS/NZS Standards. The problem in many tender documents is that the specification frequently states “Must be certified to AS/NZSXXXX or equivalent Standard” and this allows the “equivalent” to be purchased.

In respect to AS/NZS 4067, there is no valid equivalent Standard. The NFPA 1971:2013 edition is similar but not identical. EN 443:2008 is not equivalent to AS/NZS 4067/2012, and the committee who worked on this document were at great pains to both strengthen where necessary but not weaken from what the 2004 edition had already achieved. This was because there is ample evidence in both Australia and New Zealand, that where the PPE is correctly worn, the clothing designed for use in our environment provides outstanding protection in all foreseeable circumstances. In my experience, retaining the strengths of the AS/NZS Standards was very much in the mind of the participants in the committee discussions, as was a concern not to over-burden fire fighters with heavy or cumbersome PPE.

The dexterity test in gloves was important, but so was adequate radiant heat protection across the back of the hand while holding hoses near a fire. Some issues like this require compromises. Another issue is structural helmet weight. Most EN 443 helmets now weigh over 1.75 kg, and this is because there is a very destructive test in the EN 443 Standard, that effectively destroys the helmet shell, prior to impact test and penetration test in two locations. European manufacturers have compensated for this by adding bulk to their helmet shells, but Australasian brigades did not want helmet weight to go over 1.4 kg.

In our experience any European helmet that claims a complete weight (helmet, face shield and neck protector combined) at 1.3 kg, needs careful investigation, because it is impossible to achieve this low weight and be genuinely certified to EN 443.

Assuming we are to have AS/NZS Standards, and these documents are developed by and for Australian fire brigades, surely the services themselves would see value in the work? If not, why have AS/NZS Standards?

Defending the veracity and validity of our AS/NZS safety Standards is a challenge that Australian and New Zealand manufacturers and suppliers must face up to.

For more information, go to www.pacifichelmets.com

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David Bennett founded Pacific Helmets New Zealand in 1982. Originally, the company manufactured motorcycle helmets, but in 1984 the company won a tender to supply the NZFS with structural fire helmets. In 1990 the company won a tender to supply the London Fire Service, and from then on the helmets went international, not just fire, but also for para-medics, rescue, public order and high risk industrial applications. The company holds ISO 9001 certifications and helmets are certified to every reputable international helmet Standard.