Firefighting Gloves: Thermal Performance or Dexterity?

Editor's note: Mike McKenna is the chairman of the NFPA 1971 Technical Committee Task Group on Gloves, which is discussing changes to structural firefighting glove performance requirements. In addition, the NFPA Research Foundation has partnered with North Carolina State University to further research structural firefighting gloves. With the very nature of structural gloves coming under close scrutiny, the Task Group is looking for as much firefighter input as possible via a short survey. We urge you to take part by clicking here.

By Mike McKenna

What does the fire service want most in a glove — thermal performance or dexterity? Generally speaking, firefighters not only want it all but they want the best of everything! While I understand this point of view, the fire service is not going to get it all when it comes to structural gloves. It is not any conspiracy; it is Mother Nature and the laws of physics.

Research indicates that the majority of firefighters want more dexterity.  Increased dexterity comes at the cost of decreased thermal protection, both in the palm and the back of the hand. The NFPA 1971 Technical Committee can develop standards that will increase hand dexterity, but there will be a loss of thermal protection. The big question is this  — which is more important?

The Technical Committee has wrestled with this tradeoff for at least seven years. Hundreds of hours have already been put into research and tens of thousands of dollars have been spent in redesign and redevelopment of structural gloves, and firefighters still complain about hot hands, poorly fitting gloves, lack of dexterity, and that structural gloves are difficult to doff and don.

A structural glove is designed to provide firefighters hand protection while doing their job and to protect the hands during a single catastrophic event — namely a flashover. Conversations with firefighters indicate that they want and more importantly expect structural gloves to provide them with large amounts of dexterity, are easy to don and will protect their hands during every fireground operation up to and including a flashover.

What is dexterity as related to structural firefighting? I would argue that the most important dexterity feature of a structural glove is the ability to grip, both palm and finger grip. If a firefighter thinks about everything that is done when wearing gloves, it appears that grip is most important. The second most important dexterity feature would be fingertip dexterity.

Thermal protection
Thermal protection as it relates to firefighting has two components. The first component is that a structural glove needs to protect the palm of the hand from compression burns when the firefighter picks up a hot object like a hot steel bedrail. At the very minimum, the firefighter expects to be able to pick up that heated bedrail long enough to toss it outside during overhaul. In addition to palm compression protection, the structural glove is expected to protect the back of firefighters' hands from high levels of radiant heat. The high levels of radiant heat are most prevalent during defensive-type operations.

Dexterity vs. thermal protection tradeoffs
Many believe dexterity is without any doubt important, and arguably the most important component of a structural glove. But is it really? Dexterity comes at the price of thermal protection. The more dexterity a glove has, the less thermal protection it offers. Furthermore, thermal protection is important to both the palm and the back of the hand. Firefighters need to pick up hot objects, have the tactility to feel them and still be protected from radiant heat to the back of the hand. Oddly, research indicates that most of the documented serious burns are to the back of the hand.

Complexity of a glove
The structural glove is a very complex piece of PPE in design and construction. Some gloves have as many as five carefully placed layers of materials to provide thermal protection. These pieces are designed to provide hand protection under many mutually exclusive situations. The design and construction of the various pieces are co-dependent and each layer of effectiveness is dependent on the layers and pieces. It is very much like a football offensive play in coordination. All of the smaller components have to work in conjunction so that the larger design is achieved, but modern materials and design do not provide the thermal protection and dexterity desired.

Another important piece of this glove protection puzzle is fit. Proper fit is vital for proper protection. NFPA 1971 has put lots of direct effort into the fit of structural gloves, but there seems to be more complaints of hot hands than ever before. I did some research into these claims by asking firefighters about their experiences of hot hands or burns. The most common underlying factor seemed to be poor fit — specifically, the selection of a glove that is too small. The selection of gloves that are too small seems to stem from the belief of some firefighters that they will offer better dexterity. The selection seems to be more prevalent with the composite outer shell gloves instead of the animal skin outer shell gloves because the composite gloves will stretch.

What levels of protection should gloves provide?
The fire department is an all service provider. We do it all. Not all pieces of our PPE have that luxury. Structural gloves have a limited ability to protect from high radiant heat and heat with compression, and have limited ease of doffing and donning, comfort, waterproofness, and dexterity all at the same time. The laws of physics are to blame. So what does the fire service want in a structural glove? What are the most important features in a structural glove and what tradeoffs is the fire service willing to make?

These questions are very important and I am asking and looking for feedback. Many firefighters are skeptical about providing input, believing it will never reach the decision makers. Any input to this column and the survey will go directly to the decision makers and will be used to make decisions on glove performance requirements. The Task Group on Gloves is asking for input and is open to all opinions — please share yours by either e-mailing me or filling out our short survey.

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