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Is the fire service ready for a PPE shake-up?

Despite drastic technological advances over the decades, firefighter PPE remains relatively unchanged

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” ... [T]he basic philosophy for how current turnout clothing looks and is tested remains unchanged from the mid-1980s and early-1990s when most of the fundamental changes took place within protective clothing industry,” Jeffrey O. and Grace G. Stull write.

AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

Let’s face it, we have become dependent on digital and interconnected technology, and the increasing pace of newness is an accepted part of our lives.

When it comes to firefighter protective clothing, though, there have been relatively few significant changes in how the clothing appears and performs for some time. It is true that gear has become lighter and more flexible, and imparts less stress on the firefighter, while still providing high levels of insulation and physical protection. But we would argue that the basic philosophy for how current turnout clothing looks and is tested remains unchanged from the mid-1980s and early-1990s when most of the fundamental changes took place within protective clothing industry. It is this period where configuration of modern firefighter protective clothing was set, and many of the test methods that define performance were established.

Why so little has changed in the PPE world

Why is it that in a world of rapid technological change turnout gear has remained so unchanged? Is the answer that we have reached a plateau in technology where only small incremental changes are possible? Could it be that the fire service believes that PPE is exactly where it should be to support current fire service missions? Or are we stuck with the same metrics for assessing clothing performance from 20 years ago?

Let’s take these questions one by one. First, we believe that there are new, yet-to-be-discovered or applied clothing material and design technologies. As for whether the fire service is satisfied with the current state of the industry, we have seen drastic drops in burn injuries over the past several decades where most of the original requirements for gear were targeted. There have even been some reductions for physiological-related injuries and fatalities, or at least these statistics have not gotten worse. Nevertheless, we have seen significant increases in the rates of reported cancer-related events and deaths among firefighters. In terms of requirements and test methodology, it is our personal experience that standards governing protective clothing have not changed much since the 2000 edition of the NFPA 1971: Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting.

If we examine both the posed questions and the possible responses, it seems most evident that change is at least partially affected by the standards that define firefighter protective clothing –and these standards have stayed relatively unchanged. Therefore, incremental changes to standards means incremental changes in material and clothing technology. This would be OK if it wasn’t for the fact that the fire service has been changing rapidly, not only in how missions have been defined and the new hazards that firefighters face but also the key issues related to carcinogen exposure and gear cleaning.

Changing missions and hazards warrant change

Fire service missions have changed over the years, with firefighters increasingly performing duties other than just structural firefighting. In many cases, communities have become dependent on firefighters to perform more and more specialized emergency operations, such as technical rescue, wildland-urban interface (WUI) firefighting or pursuing a larger role in public health initiatives. Turnout clothing is designed for structural fires and the degree to which those responses affect its usability or its overall suitability for other missions is questionable for many reasons.

We have written before that the fire service could benefit from clothing ensembles that are designed to be adaptable for multiple missions.

Read next: Is there a place for multi-functional gear in the fire service?

While a nice concept, it also forces significant changes in how departments operate for outfitting their firefighters, and is not without consequences for practically maintaining the appropriate protection, much less the potential economic impact on the department. Still, if we recognize that turnout clothing is not the right PPE for much of what the fire service does, it does beg the question: Can more multi-function gear be employed or can adaptable turnout clothing be developed and effectively implemented?

By relying on conventional statistics for firefighter injuries and fatalities that include both environmental exposures as well as cardiovascular and other physiological conditions, one could conclude that the pace of change and improvement for turnout clothing is about right. With improvements in training to recognize the limitations of firefighter clothing in ultra-hazardous situations, further minimization of injuries and fatalities could occur. But there has been a growing number of other health issues that are mainly tied to toxic and carcinogenic effects of exposure to fireground contaminants. These are not anomalies. They are tied to the increased toxicological hazards of modern burning materials, many of which can remain persistent in the environment even after their use has been limited. The exposure to the hazardous substances, both directly on the fireground and indirectly through contamination on clothing, warrants greater attention to not only PPE but also other means for contamination control.

Related: Firefighter PPE: Designing for contamination control

In terms of PPE, there are no mandatory requirements for protection from fireground products of combustion-based contaminants in NFPA 1971. Yes, there is an optional requirement for a particulate-blocking hood (which blocks particulates but may or may not limit the penetration of fire gases), and there is also an optional full ensemble set of requirements that looks at the entire ensemble in preventing surrogate smoke particles and liquids from getting onto the firefighter’s skin. However, there are no other requirements that address contamination resistance of clothing or its ease of cleaning other than a relatively perfunctory test that requires the removability of helmet ear coverings and other textiles for easier cleaning.

The absence of contamination resistance metrics in view of the current major concerns within the fire service is troubling. But in reality, it is also very difficult to attain good test methods and establish reasonable and implementable requirements for addressing such matters.

This issue raises several questions:

  • If we expect gear to be washed more frequently, which in turn affects service life and some protection attributes, wouldn’t we want to have performance measured after more than five wash cycles?
  • Do we need to look at the contamination resistance of materials, including their oil resistance?
  • Do we need to also address how well clothing can be cleaned and give preferences to those materials or designs?
  • And finally, if we look at these metrics, how do these other measurements supplement or contradict existing requirements? This leads to finding the right balance between thermal/physical protection, physiological impact, and contamination control.

Obstacles for changing requirements

We are all human – nobody wants change for the sake of change.

How many of us become exasperated when something that we feel works well enough is replaced by something that is different and costs mores, requires new familiarity, or both, when we feel that the current product works well? We think, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” Further, there’s the issue of fire service culture and the fact that many firefighters attach their identity to their PPE. This resistance to change is real and must be accounted for.

There are also the concerns for increased uncertainty. Heading down a new path with new metrics creates an unease related to not knowing how new measurements and requirements will impact existing products, many of which are perceived as having correctly evolved to meet firefighter needs. Some manufacturers are reluctant to sign onto new approaches unless they have confidence that the changes don’t adversely impact their products. Firefighters who like their current gear may not be willing to make the tradeoffs that are necessary to embrace changes designed to aid in contamination control – and their organizations may see the costs as hard to justify.

Lastly, there is the matter of how new changes in standardized testing are introduced. Believe it or not, there are several tests that are performed now the same way they were conducted in the 1970s, when they were first devised, whether for helmet impact testing, glove puncture resistance, or garment material heat resistance. Coming up with new, more directed tests to address new mission and hazard protection needs is actually very hard to do, as such tests must be reliable, repeatable and meaningful.

PPE changes are inevitable

We must move past these potential obstacles, though, as it is time to revamp how we test and measure firefighting protective clothing to address varying missions and new hazards.

The upcoming revision of NFPA 1971 is already underway and will be in full force toward the end of 2021. On top of that revision is the consolidation of several standards into one that will ultimately encapsulate the major firefighter protective clothing and equipment, including structural firefighting protective ensemble, work uniforms, SCBA and PASS. Needless to say, this conglomeration alone may create the incentives to reinvigorate appropriate changes in the new standards. The result could end up shaking up PPE in the fire service.

Note: The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsor.

Get all the facts about Personal Protective Equipment. Foremost PPE expert Jeffrey Stull writes ‘PPE Update,’ a FireRescue1 column that covers personal protective equipment options, fit, selection and all the regulations for its care and maintenance.