Bristol Uniforms has been at the forefront of firefighter PPE design for more than 60 years. Working closely with the world’s leading fabric and fibre manufacturers, such as WL Gore, Hainsworth and PBI, we bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to every new garment produced, whilst taking advantage of the very latest technological advances.
The PID Department
Our Product Innovation and Development (PID) team, are based at our head office in Bristol, UK. Here, our technical designers carry out research into new materials and develop new product ranges. They keep a close eye on the market, exploring new materials under development, keeping abreast of topical issues, looking out for any new or amended standards on the horizon, and talking with our customers to gain an insight into what they want and need from their PPE.
Once a new concept has been identified, a small working group is formed from a range of disciplines across the business. They undertake research at a local, national and regional level, looking at the latest developments in the industry and beyond, seeking input from customers and international distributors, and exploring the latest fibres and fabrics on the market. It is a collaborative process and one which takes many months.
Drawing on the research undertaken, our specialist technical designers then develop new product designs using the very latest Computer Aided Design (CAD) software.
Designing protective clothing is complex and highly-skilled. Garments must address the numerous combinations of health risks, whilst allowing maximum movement and comfort. For example, firefighter clothing must be flame-proof, heat-resistant and water resistant, but at the same time it is essential that it is breathable to keep the body cool and dry. Equally, it must be light and flexible enough for firefighters to undertake a physically demanding role which is likely to include running, climbing and crawling.
Once a new product is designed, prototypes are created and put through a raft of rigorous tests to measure safety, protection, comfort and ergonomics, as well as adherence to relevant international standards for firefighter PPE. The products are also tested for compatibility with all other garments they are likely to be worn with, to ensure top-to-toe protection for a myriad of garment combinations.
Here are some examples of previous challenges faced by our PID department, and the solutions they came up with:
XFlex – designed for the modern firefighter
Our XFlex structural firefighting range is an example of a design created in response to the changing role of the firefighter. It was becoming clear that firefighters needed and wanted more flexibility and manoeuvrability in their PPE because their roles were evolving. In a trend replicated across most areas of the world, firefighters were spending much less time fighting fires and more time attending a wide variety of other emergencies such as traffic accidents, medical emergencies, flooding and chemical spills. With this in mind, we started to look at ways of making firefighting PPE more ergonomic and comfortable, and more protective against the new types of hazards they were facing.
Various designs were put forward by the design team, which differed in construction, fabrics, shape and look. We assessed each one and the preferred design was then refined. During this process we undertook what is known as indicative testing, which is independent testing of selected fabric layers to ensure they work effectively and meet the required standards.
The final XFlex design features a spiral cut, which at the time was unique for firefighting clothing. This means that none of the seams of the garment are straight, but instead follow the body’s curves and contours and allow much more movement and flexibility. The design features shoulder shaping and under arm gussets, which allow full rotational arm movement, and ergonomic three-dimensional articulated elbows and knees. Since XFlex was launched, these features have been replicated by others and have become industry standard.
XFlex is now Bristol Uniforms’ flagship range and is popular in many areas of the world, favoured by many Fire & Rescue services in Europe and the Middle East, as well as across Australia, New Zealand and Asia. The structural garments selected for the UK’s Collaborative Framework procurement contract are also a variation of the XFlex design.
Particulate Protection Hood – designed in response to health risks
A more recent product, the Particulate Protection Hood, was designed in direct response to emerging research into health risks associated with exposure to smoke particles. The industry has long been concerned by high rates of cancer diagnoses and deaths amongst firefighters, and exposure to smoke particles has now been highlighted as a possible cause.
Studies show that neck and jaw areas are most vulnerable to smoke particle exposure, and that protective hoods are usually the most penetrable part of a firefighter’s kit.
Bristol Uniforms’ response has been to work with fabric and fibre manufacturers to develop a revolutionary new hood to be worn under the helmet and collar, specifically designed to filter harmful smoke particles. However, the process was not simple. It was a significant challenge to create a hood that would act as a barrier to toxins and particles, but also be breathable and light enough to protect the body from the life-threatening dangers of heat stress.
The resulting Particulate Protection Hood crucially features the innovative new Nomex NanoFlex particulate barrier from Dupont, which has been specifically developed to prevent contamination from potentially harmful particles. Our designers had to find a way to incorporate this very thin, web-like material into a comfortable, practical garment. The successful design involved sandwiching the delicate NanoFlex within two layers of soft, flame-resistant, breathable cloth and quilting them together. In addition, to further reduce heat, the NanoFlex material is carefully excluded from areas where it is not required, such as the crown of the head, where the helmet will provide protection, and the shoulder area which sits under the coat.
The final design is flame-resistant and 99.8% efficient at preventing particle exposure, but also highly breathable, thin and light-weight. It has been certified to standard EN13911:2017, the latest version of the CEN standard for Fire Hoods.
Glove 49A – Designed to meet a specific standard
Gloves in particular, present a specific design challenge for manufacturers, as they must offer protection and be comfortable to wear, whilst enabling maximum movement and dexterity. They must also fit well with undergarments and jackets to prevent exposure around the wrists.
The structural firefighting Glove 49A was specifically developed to meet criteria set by Standards Australia and New Zealand for the standard AS/NZS:2161.6:2014.
Featuring Hainsworth Titan PBI 1260 outer-fabric, the glove provides essential protection against heat and flame. This is combined with a pathogen resistant Gore Crosstech membrane, essential for protection when working with toxic materials or handling patients in a medical emergency. Finally, the inner Kevlar lining provides breathability and comfort. Extra features on the glove include silicone palms for extra grip, reflective piping, knuckle protectors and knitted Nomex cuffs.
Crucially, this textile glove is also anatomically shaped for fit and comfort, allowing good range of motion and manual dexterity, which is essential to enable firefighters to carry out their role safely and effectively.
Glove 49A was the first textile glove to adhere to the AS/NZS standard, meeting a clear need within the Asia Pacific region. It has also been tested for compatibility with other garments designed and manufactured for these markets, to eliminate the possibility of gaps around vulnerable areas, such as the wrists where the glove meets the coat sleeves. This provides peace of mind and ensures optimal performance.
As the role of the firefighter continues to evolve, as new research provides greater understanding of potential risks and dangers, and as new technologies are developed in protective fibres and fabrics, it is certainly a very exciting time for firefighter PPE design. Bristol Uniforms is proud to be a world-leader in this field, and our dedicated design team will continue to strive to improve, adapt and innovate to provide the very best protection for firefighters across the globe.
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