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How to set up a PPE field test

Conducting a well-structured field test of different PPE brands will aid in making the right purchase choice

The PPE selection process becomes important as departments are nearing the end of the 2012 budget year and the beginning of a new budget cycle. Some departments may be looking to expend grant monies; others will have to contend with local resources.

For all departments, PPE selection will have to entail an element of long-term planning, the centerpiece of which should be a field test. If your department is in the market for new gear, particularly gear that meets the recently released 2013 edition, a properly conducted field test is a critical step to ensure that you find the PPE that best fits your needs.

The first step in designing an effective field test is to assess a department's needs. This is typically done by conducting a hazard and risk assessment, which can follow the guidelines provided in the appendix of NFPA 1851, Standard on Selection, Care and Maintenance of Structural and Proximity Fire Fighting Protective Ensembles, 2008 edition.

In addition, it is important to outline the department's bunker gear requirements, which should include the desired protective properties, features and configurations. Determining the department's needs as part of the hazard and risk assessment is usually conducted by the department's safety officer with input and recommendations from a PPE committee. The assessment should consider:

  • Type of duties performed: The firefighting and rescue tactics that a department performs and the day-to-day duties of the firefighters wearing the gear are critical factors.
  • Frequency of use: The average number of runs and the frequency of use in both training and non-training activities are important. Departments with a high volume of activity may choose an outer shell with high-abrasion or other durability characteristics that extends the life of the bunker gear.
  • Organization experiences: This can run the gambit from first-hand experience of gear previously worn to feedback on service and repair issues experienced by neighboring or mutual-aid departments.
  • Incident operations: Consider the types of calls a department runs and if it will be used for extrication and EMS calls, or if those will require separate gear.
  • Location and climate: Gear designed for departments in North Dakota will have different requirements than gear designed for departments in Southern California. The weight of the gear, thermal protection and breathability must be considered.


PPE manufacturers can provide information to help develop specifications and to educate firefighters on new features, designs and composites. Most PPE manufacturers are now versed in the new NFPA 1971, 2013 edition, which is another requirement that a department must consider.

Factors for rating bunker gear during field testing

Specific rating areas for overall clothing

  • Degree of fit
  • Feeling of bulkiness and weight
  • Ease of movement – walking
  • Ease of movement – duck walking or crawling
  • Exposure of body areas to fireground environment
  • Ease of interface with other equipment – helmet, gloves, footwear, hood, SCBA
  • Ease of donning and doffing
  • General thermal comfort (breathability)

Specific ratings areas for parts of clothing

  • Effectiveness of coat sleeve – glove interface
  • Effectiveness of pant – footwear interface
  • Ability to reach with arms
  • Ability to bend at legs and waist
  • Ease of coat front closure operation
  • Pocket placement and utility
  • Comfort of extended collar with helmet, hood, and SCBA facepiece
  • Comfort of knee reinforcements

General questions

  • What features or characteristics of the bunker gear did you like?
  • What features or characteristics of the bunker gear did you not like?

That standard is for minimum requirements for structural PPE. Fire departments should always look for products that exceed the requirements for the utmost protection.

Ensure that the requirements represent a complete and detailed description of what the department is looking for prior to commencing the field test. This will allow you to clearly define and communicate the departmental needs and help you determine which PPE manufacturer is doing the best job in meeting those needs.

Field test design and parameters
There are several different ways to structure a field test. Some departments prefer to put field test gear on a busy company and let them test the gear in their normal day-to-day activities. 

Other departments conduct field tests at training facilities where each participant is run through a series of training simulations to determine the gear's performance and the participants' preferences. Still other departments use a combination of both the methods.

Regardless of the method, there are four key considerations to include when structuring the field test.

Invite the manufacturer
Before the field test is conducted, invite manufacturers to make presentations on the benefits of their prospective products. These meetings are an opportunity to lay ground rules with the manufacturers for how they should interact with the department to keep the selection process above board and transparent.

Test all gear
To get the most objective and fair evaluations of gear being tested, it is crucial that all field test participants wear and test each different product being evaluated. It is also recommended that departments cycle through each model a minimum of three times. 

This allows a better chance for each participant to experience the gear in a wide variety of conditions and to validate their initial findings or opinions of each product being tested.

Quantify data
At the end of the field test, a lot of data must be compiled and analyzed. Having a quantifiable scoring system in place throughout the testing process will make that job a lot easier. Potential rating categories are provided in the sidebar.

It is also possible to actually make some physical measurements with the appropriate tools and expertise. For example, tape, rulers and photography can be used to measure and document rise and reach of members using various sets of gear to see how the gear impacts movement.

Furthermore, use of a numeric rating scale is recommended for each facet of the gear as opposed to a subjective narrative. When developing field-test evaluation forms, define the activities being scored and what is being measured for each activity. 

Be as specific as possible in what the participants are asked to measure, and provide a scoring scale so they can best matches their experience with the criteria. At the end of each section, or component being tested, provide an opportunity for additional comments to gain more detail on exactly what each participant experienced. 

Some manufacturers will provide field test evaluation forms with their samples. These forms can be used either as a ready-to-use tool or a starting point for developing a form.

Set timeframes
For a field test to run smoothly it will need defined timeframes and a schedule that includes all of the activities and key milestones.

Determine in advance how long the test will last, when the participants will cycle through each product, when they will fill out evaluation forms, when the gear will be collected and when the safety officer or PPE committee will analyze the results and present recommendations. 

All of this information should then be communicated to everyone included in the test. It is important that the field test be transparent within the department so it is clear that an objective process has been used.

The primary reason for conducting a field test is to generate a recommendation for a product that best fits a department's needs. This recommendation will be delivered in the form of a final report, which should be used to develop purchase specifications. 

When putting together field-test parameters, determine in advance who will be responsible for developing the final report, any interim reports associated with the testing and what will be included in the reporting at each stage. Also, determine who will have access to these reports along the way and to the final report. 

A well-documented field test that results in a recommendation based on quantifiable results can be a powerful tool in providing justification for the purchase of the gear that will be the best solution for your department.

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