Firefighter PPE: fit is a safety issue
Making sure PPE fits is more than an issue of comfort; it's a safety issue, and that goes for women as well as men
A protective ensemble for structural firefighting that meets the NFPA 1971 is designed to protect a firefighter from two primary hazards: the external thermal hazard (the heat produced by the fire) and the mechanical hazards presented by the physical environment.
For the protective ensemble to do its job effectively it must be properly fitted to the individual firefighter.
When asked what is important when fitting a firefighter with turnout gear, Chadd Clarey, co-owner at Fire Safety USA said, "Comfort and fit are first and then the quality of construction."
Why does he think that? "Every manufacturer of turnout gear is using the same fabrics, whether it's PBI, Kevlar or Nomex, that come from the same mills so the way you differentiate your product from all the rest comes down to those two factors," he said.
Clarey and his sales staff use a sizing set rather than tape measurements to get the best fit for the individual firefighter. "We have 10 sets of firefighter turnout gear that range in size," Clarey said. "Much like you would try on different sizes of a jacket in a clothing store to get the best fit for you, we do the same with firefighters.
"Our experience is that the individual firefighter is more satisfied with the comfort and fit of the gear they ultimately receive because they had a hand in choosing what fit them the best."
When it comes to fit, women really are different than men; and just as there is no normal-size man, there is no normal-size woman. For a given waist size, women generally have wider hips relative to men, but they can also be petite, misses, women's or plus-sized, tall, short or in-between.
Carol Brown, a division chief for Bolder, Colo., had this to say about making bunker gear work. "A woman's waist is longer than a man's and therefore the pants don't always ride at the waist but below [the waist], which is the hips. That happens to be the widest part of some women so the pants fit odd.
"I have been in the fire service for 24 years and haven't worn suspenders for the last 20 because the buckles happen to be exactly in the wrong place, mid-chest, if you catch my drift. Put on top of all of that the SCBA strap and the comfort level is thrown out the window."
Although NFPA 1971 requires specific patterns for women, most women have a difficult time finding the right fit. As with male firefighters, the key to fit is gear that comes in different shapes as well as different sizes.
When asked about any differences between fitting men and women with turnout gear, Clarey said they have women try on the gear and take tape measurements. "In the manufacturing process we have a female cut that's used to make turnout gear for women that takes into account the differences between men and women anatomically."
Going the distance
On the quality and construction, Clarey said the important thing is looking for how the garment is put together for the long haul.
"NFPA 1971 specifies that turnout gear be replace at least every 10 years," he said. "And with the cost of a set of turnout gear today, as a fire chief you want to make sure that the gear you purchase is going to last."
NFPA 1500 also addresses the proper fit for turnout gear, particularly regarding the overlap of the layers. This includes the necessary overlap of the turnout coat's vapor barrier with the turnout pants.
"The protective coat and the protective trousers shall have at least a 2 inches (50 mm) overlap of all layers so there is no gaping of the total thermal protection when the garment is worn," NFPA 1500, Section 7.2.2 reads. "The minimum overlap shall be determined by measuring the garments on the wearer, without SCBA, in both of the following positions: standing, hands together reaching overhead as high as possible; and standing, hands together reaching overhead, with the body bent forward at a 90-degree angle, to the side (either right or left), and to the back."
"Proper fitting turnout gear is also an issue that affects safety," said Mark Dolim, national sales manager at Globe Manufacturing. "OSHA [OSHA 1910.132] — which unlike an NFPA standard, is a law — requires that the employer provide suitable PPE for their employee. The issue of proper overlapping of garment components, whether you're talking about the coat and pants or the coat sleeve with the glove, is a critical factor in the garments ability to protect the firefighter."
Dolim said another potential safety hazard is posed by turnout gear that is too small for the individual.
"A key component in the protective ensemble's ability to protect the firefighter from heat is the amount of air that is trapped between the layers of the coat and pants," Dolim said. "When that space is compressed because the gear is too small, it creates the potential for heat to be transmitted through the layers of the garment and a thermal burn can occur."
Comfort and fit and increased firefighter safety are just a few of the key reasons why your turnout gear should be properly sized before you receive it.