This feature looks at the changing role of firefighters and how fire and rescue services are increasingly choosing to combine lightweight, high-visibility rescue jackets with structural trousers when attending incidents such as road traffic collisions and wildfires.
As a result of better regulation and fire-prevention initiatives, the role of a firefighter has evolved in recent years. When talking to firefighters on the ground it’s apparent that they now spend only a fraction of their time fighting structural fires. This is backed up by figures for example from the Home Office1 in the UK, which shows that firefighters attended 557,299 incidents in 2019/20, but only 28% of these rescues took place at fire-related emergencies. It’s a similar picture elsewhere in the world.
Incidents can vary in type and complexity. Road traffic collisions, for example, can range from a shunt on a minor road to a pile up on a major highway. At these incidents, firefighters must secure the scene, and in serious incidents free trapped passengers from vehicles – working closely with other emergency services to help save lives. Other non-fire-related incidents include chemical spills, medical incidents and water rescues.
Wearing full structural kit will not always be appropriate or necessary for these types of jobs. Firefighters obviously need their PPE to be lightweight, ergonomic, heat and flame resistant, breathable, and protect against pathogens, hazardous chemicals and the elements, but it also needs to be adaptable for the roles they are undertaking.
Structural PPE, such as MSA Bristol’s EOS and XFlex ranges, is a must when firefighters are called to tackle fires. They have a three-layer construction, which protects from heat and flame and also keeps the body dry and cool. This type of PPE is vital for protecting firefighters from heat stress. Both ranges also have curved seams that follow the shape of the body, as well as underarm gussets and three-dimensional articulated elbows and knees, which allow maximum movement and flexibility. EOS is even more flexible thanks to distinctive, supple and reflective taping called HEX-TT, and has specific design features to avoid the build-up of harmful smoke particles in vulnerable areas.
USAR, or technical rescue PPE, however, is ideal when firefighters have to work in confined spaces or attend road traffic collisions and wildfires. They often have a two-layer construction incorporating a flame-retardant outer layer with a waterproof membrane to provide flexibility and physical protection against injury when deployed in collapsed buildings or damaged vehicles. Bristol’s RescueFlex consists of a rescue jacket and trouser based on our XFlex design. It is tear and puncture resistant, lightweight to minimise heat stress and provides protection against blood-borne pathogens. It also has reinforcements on the knee and elbow for protection when kneeling or crawling and offers a high level of flexibility to afford manoeuvrability.
MSA Bristol also has a PPE range known as LayerFlex. LayerFlex is made up of three garments, which when used in combination provide the required levels of protection for structural and wildland firefighting, as well as technical rescue operations. We worked closely with Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) to develop this range. GMFRS recognized that they needed something that was more flexible and that worked best for its firefighters while responding to other operational duties, like rescues, road traffic collisions, and extinguishing wildfires and small fires.
Increasingly, fire and rescue services are now moving towards a layered approach to PPE. Whether that be by purchasing Bristol’s LayerFlex range, or buying a combination of ranges, such as the XFlex structural kit with RescueFlex jacket. I spoke to two of our customers to find out why they opted for a mix and match approach:
Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service (FRS)
Cambridgeshire FRS are based in the east of England and are responsible for delivering fire and rescue services to the 805,000 people2 of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. Cambridgeshire FRS were the first in the country to use Bristol’s XFlex structural PPE and RescueFlex jacket in combination. A spokesman for Cambridgeshire FRS explains why: ‘We were looking for kit that uses the latest technology in firefighter clothing, which was ergonomically designed to provide our crews with the very best protection. The safety of our firefighters is of the utmost importance to us, and a host of options went through rigorous testing before our staff chose the very best fit for them.
‘The kit is lighter in weight, breathable and offers more support for the wearer than the fire kit we previously used. Having the option to choose between different coats helps ensure our crews are able to stay protected and manage their temperature depending on the conditions.
‘Cambridgeshire is a rural county meaning our crews will often attend fires in fields and farmland, particularly during the summer months. The advantage of having the lighter coat is that crews can use it to tackle fires like this without having to carry the additional weight. This is a real advantage when the weather is particularly hot.”
Hereford & Worcester Fire and Rescue Service (HWFRS)
HWFRS are based in the West Midlands and have approximately 250 whole-time firefighters and 380 on-call firefighters, supported by some 20 fire-control staff and approximately 100 support staff. They also host one of 29 Urban Search and Rescue specialist units in the UK.
The Service receives nearly 10,000 emergency calls each year requesting assistance at a wide variety of incidents, including road traffic collisions, collapsed structures, water rescues, hazardous materials and animal rescues. They attend just over 6,500 incidents each year – more than 125 incidents every week.3
HWFRS recently purchased lightweight rescue jackets through the Central PPE and Clothing Contract (CPCC), a national procurement scheme for fire and rescue services across England and Wales.
Ade Elliott, Head of Assets at HWFRS, comments: ‘We first ordered through the CPCC in 2011 but needed to refresh our kit in 2018. This time, we purchased orange lightweight tunics for crews, and extra lighting for their helmets, alongside the usual full structural ensemble. It has been useful to have a lighter alternative jacket when attending certain incidents.
‘Our firefighters tell me the XFlex structural gear and rescue jackets are comfortable to wear and provide good range of movement. I’m satisfied that we’ve managed to provide them with high-quality PPE that will continue to offer them excellent protection for each and every call-out, for years to come.’
A number of UK fire and rescue services are now opting for a combination of PPE. For example, through the UK Collaborative PPE Framework, 21 fire and rescue services have gone for a mix-and-match approach. Leicestershire FRS are the most recent to sign up and has opted for Bristol’s XFlex range and RescueFlex jacket. Kent, West Midlands, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, Nottinghamshire and Cornwall FRSs are among others who have done the same, giving them the flexibility to mix and match their garments depending on the nature of the call-out.
The benefits of opting for a layered approach are many, but it is important for fire and rescue services to check that all their garments are compatible. It is vital that boots, gloves and helmets operate effectively with trousers and coats, without leaving any areas of the body vulnerable or exposed to risk. At MSA Bristol, there are infinite combinations available to make up a full kit, and all of these are compatibility tested to ensure the garments work effectively together to provide full body protection.
Over the last ten years or so, the role of a firefighter has diversified, and in response we as an industry have done the same, creating new ranges that can be used in combination with a firefighter’s standard structural kit to offer the very best protection for the job in hand.
For more information, go to www.bristoluniforms.com
- Source: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/923072/detailed-analysis-fires-attended-fire-rescue-england-1920-hosb2820.pdf
- Taken from www.cambsfire.gov.uk/about-us/who-we-are/
- Taken from www.hwfire.org.uk/about-us/the-fire-service/