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PPE / PPC: The Last Line of Defence

PPE / PPC: The Last Line of Defence

In the world of modern fire and emergency services, there is an ever-increasing trend for firefighters to respond to more and different types of emergencies. With this trend, comes the commensurate need for effective and efficient Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

The International Standards Organisation (ISO) TC94 SC 14 is working through the issues of this PPE and is working towards an “ensemble” standard. That is a “head to toe” or holistic concept of protection. This allows for all of the items of PPE/PPC to be considered in the one standard.

By drafting standards in this holistic way, it better facilitates the notion of compatibility when considering the protection of the firefighter, rather than developing separate standards for each item of PPE/PPC in isolation. Working Group 1 (WG1) is charged to consider the issues of compatibility amongst many others. To that end it is critical to have a working knowledge of the ever changing dynamics of today’s contemporary fire services and their responses, while considering the more historic and traditional emergency response agencies as well as the provision of emergency response in developing countries. End-user impute is paramount in this important consideration.

Many fire services across the world suffer from a narrow or singular focus on PPC acquisition. All too often the task of purchasing various elements of PPC or PPE is given to an upwardly mobile senior officer, with varying levels of understanding of PPC performance, and driven by ever increasing budget constraints. It may be that only one element of PPE is due for renewal in a given year. The following year a different person may be charged with the purchase of a different element of PPE. Clearly the issue of compatibility is of upmost importance, but often receives little consideration or does not form part of a holistic strategic long-term PPE plan.

Many countries have various types of staffing for a range of service delivery models. These may range from and or a combination of career, part-time or volunteer staff within government, military or private providers. All too often, the funding struggles to be spread in a balanced manor across all these models or within a given service. However it becomes particularly disturbing when PPE is purchased to a restricted budget, or cheaper lower level of protection for a larger numbered cohort of firefighters, just because the total initial cost is higher. If the firefighting risks and tasks are the same across these service delivery models, then the level of protection needs to be the same; for example, structural firefighting.

Some countries even have different levels of protection in their structural firefighting PPC on a given firefighter. This practice is also fraught with danger. It creates a different level of flame and heat protection in the coat compared to the pants. I understand that some departments have a layered approach, where they build on the level of protection using the station uniform as part of the base protection and build the rest of the protection with the turn out coat and pants or even layered approach to the turn-out gear itself.

This makes it hard to guarantee that firefighters will always wear both levels, particularly in the hot summer months. It also creates another mixed ensemble dilemma where some departments have a moisture barrier in the coat and pants for protection against water ingress, chemicals, blood borne pathogens and yes, even heat and flame, but do not have the same level of protection in the boots or gloves.

In fact much of my work on the various ISO committees has focused on the very important issue of compatibility. It is important to have a comprehensive and working knowledge of all aspects of compatibility and the performance dynamics of firefighting PPC/PPE and the various service delivery models, in conjunction with the range of attack strategies and tactics, as well as various emergency management intervention protocols.


The following is an extract from one of my submissions that I will be tabling at the next ISO committee meeting.

There are three main areas of consideration when determining issues of compatibility of PPE/PPC when it comes to forming protective safety standards:

1 The fire service’s / government’s policy on “time, weight and type” of incident response and their philosophy on emergency management, including their Training, Strategies and Tactics.

2 The compatibility of the performance of the PPE/PPC for a given work environment.

3 The functionality of the protection at the interface, where different elements of PPE/PPC meet.

1.1 It is important to consider the mixed staffing types of response, which provincial demographic areas sometimes receive. This mixed response level often comes with different levels of protection in their PPE/PPC. Therefore it is critical to separate the tasks of these firefighters, as their PPE/PPC is not compatible if they all work in the “hot zone” of an emergency incident. Modern and contemporary fire services use the tactical management tool of Hot, Warm and Cold zones to better manage and delineate exposure risks, not only in HazMat incidents but all emergency incidents. The Hot Zone could be described as the area or potential area of work by an emergency service worker, where there is the risk or potential risk of exposure to any hazard of the incident. This Hot Zone can impact on the community as well and therefore no one should be permitted in such an area, without the appropriate and compatible PPE/PPC. Any mixing of levels of protection in PPE/PPC within this area is dangerous and makes it impossible to conduct and record a credible Dynamic Risk Assessment by the Incident Commander/Controller.

  Of equal if not greater importance is having a strong fire service philosophy on emergency management. Many departments have adopted a risk-based philosophy, which looks at saveable life, property and environment. This often focuses on firefighters delivering an acceptable level of risk in accordance with their experience, training and PPE on saveable life, property or environment. While on the other hand they will not commit any risk, on life, property or environment which is not saveable.

Some others still pursue a higher risk attack strategy of intervention if it is at all possible, while others may adopt an entirely defensive strategy often due to longer response times or a lack of appropriate or compatible PPE/PPC.


2.1 The compatibility of the performance of the PPE/PPC for a given work environment, is critical because any firefighter working in the same hostile, or potentially hostile environment, must have the same level of protection from their PPE/PPC. Again any mixing of levels of protection in PPE/PPC within this area, either on a given firefighter or between different firefighters is dangerous and makes it impossible to conduct and record a credible dynamic risk assessment by the incident commander/controller.

Transitional arrangements when changing from one supplier or issuing of PPE/PPC to another, often have subtle differences in components, sizing or design, any of which may have significant differences in performance, and therefore may not be compatible with the older PPE/PPC. This problem is often exacerbated when fire services transition to new PPE/PPC on an “as needs basis” for replacement, rather than a full replacement done all at the same time. Both of these circumstances have adverse impacts of the issue of compatibility and therefore safety.

3.1 The functionality of the protection at the interface areas of the body, is where different elements of PPE/PPC meet, and is also very critical in terms of compatibility, as it may expose some areas on the anatomy of a firefighter buy not maintaining an overlap of protection by way of poor sizing or incompatible design. Protection must be maintained through a wide range of movement and be catered for in the ergonomic design and appropriate anthropometrical sizing of the PPE/PPC.

When pursuing an ensemble standard it is important that all items of PPE/PPC can continue to provide protection and be fit for purpose when challenged from a given hostile environment or exposure and allow the firefighter the very best chance to escape to fresh air and or a safe area. By way of just one example, that being for a structural firefighting ensemble, this would mean that the helmet must be compatible with the collar of the turn-out coat, the communications system, the fire hood, and the B/A, and its functional components need to be used with a gloved hand.

The coat must be compatible with the pants and perform the same as the pants and overlap to maintain the same level of performance. There may be an option of a layered approach to achieve protection in conjunction with the station uniform, if the wearing of the station uniform can be guaranteed on every occasion. It is for the last reason that I am not an advocate of a layered approach.

So to do gloves have to be compatible with the interface of the coat sleeve, and indeed all associated PPE/PPC and provide not only protection but also dexterity with a gloved hand. If a firefighter cannot feel what they are doing and cannot work with an associated piece of equipment, then they are not compatible.


I appreciate the next step is testing some elements of these requirements in a consistent way, but I am confident that this can be done, particularly if we focus on the primary function of the item of PPE. Some of the tests may not be “pass/fail”, but many can be done in conjunction with “best performing” data, such as the dexterity of gloves, and therefore providing the best compatibility with a gloved hand. So if the primary function of a structural firefighting glove is to protect from heat and flame, this can be consistently tested and be compatible with the coat. Many of the other compatibility issues can be achieved at the tender evaluation process and could use the performance data as well as a battery of ergonomic practical tests.

B/A needs to be compatible with communications and connections need to be compatible with ancillary equipment. Firefighting boots need to be compatible with the leg of the pants in term of performance, overlap and size.

So by way of summary, firefighters see compatibility is required in a number of aspects. It exists between PPE/PPC, components of PPE/PPC as listed in points two and three above.

A few national standards across the world try to cater for different levels of protection within a given risk category (for example, structural firefighting). This defies the logic that a Standard is a “minimum safety standard” that you cannot go below, but you can certainly construct an ensemble to a single performance level, commensurate to the identified risk assessment matrix.

Some countries write their national standards as separate standards for each item of PPE. Others like the NFPA try to have inclusive ensemble standards. This enhances the focus on all elements of compatibility, providing “head to toe” compatible protection. While the structural firefighting PPC component of the ISO Standard currently has parts that cater for the various items of PPC/PPE, it is the intention to finish with a singular ensemble structural firefighting standard.

As you can imagine this is a large diverse task across so many countries with different opinions and positions. Additionally, for example, it can be problematic when it comes to testing protocols and regimes, when it comes to testing helmets compared to the tests required for material and clothing. So to for the testing equipment and methods required for the testing of boots compared to gloves and yet all have to provide the same level of heat and flame protection, chemical protection and water ingress and therefore tests for that.

So to achieve an ensemble standard, there needs to be a consistent level of protection for primary risk factors, such as heat and flame and others such as chemical, water ingress, and strength, while encouraging the appropriate tests for all the different items of PPC/PPE, so that they can withstand the exposure risks of the same hostile environment. This is why I have dedicated so much time and energy into the Manikin test as well as the Sweaty Torso test.

While the Manikin test is able to be conducted in about a dozen testing facilities around the world, there are still some variations in the results between them. As you may recall, we have undertaken a series of round robin “blind tests” (data comparison only) to exactly determine these variations. After researching a number of these facilities, often in conjunction with our ISO Meetings, I have provided a comprehensive list of the variations which exist, both in the Manikin-the data recording-room size-ventilation-burner intensity, angle and placement-as well as the different types and number of data collection nodes on the manikin.

These variations give rise to the potential for purchasers to “shop around” for the most desirable data set or outcome. In fact these variations across the world run the real risk of devaluing the very notion of Manikin testing. At the moment potential buyers of PPC test a range of options on a given manikin at a given test facility. This is of immense value when completing the whole testing regime, and in conjunction with the Sweaty Torso test, provides the purchaser a far more comprehensive and complete picture of the overall performance. At the moment the cables for the data collection from the Manikin, either come out of the head or the foot, thus restricting the ability to conduct a “full ensemble” test which could include helmet, fire hoods, coat, pants, gloves, boots, B/A, communication etc. However I am optimistic that a wireless manikin is not far away.

Therefore if we are able to get consensus on harmonising the required and associated PPE/PPC into a single ensemble standard, this should see the end product, is a better and a more user friendly document, with all the items of PPE/PPC for a given fire service activity in the one standard, hence reducing the amount of cross referencing which plagues many standards. In addition if we provide a brief descriptor of the given test requirement, it will provide more meaning for the end-user, purchaser, manufacturer and testing house staff.

As manufacturers and trade delegates continue to seek single standards worldwide across a given industry, current national standards will be required to consider ISO standards when reviewing their national standards and in the absence of national standards they will be encouraged to adopt the ISO standard. This is why it is so important that we remain actively involved in the ISO standards work environment, as global trends move away from individual and different national standards to a more cohesive and singular international standards system.

For further information, email markgribble7@bigpond.com

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

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