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

Increased fire service diversity in response operational hazards is not easily met with a one-size-fits-all PPE solution

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It may be time to reexamine how multi-functional garments provide a safe and more effective form of protection during many fire department responses.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Turnout clothing has historically been the all-purpose, all-hazards gear of choice for the fire service.

Over the past decades, garments and the associated items of helmets, gloves, footwear and hoods evolved to provide a broad range of hazard protection, including new capabilities to meet emerging threats (e.g., bloodborne pathogen protection in the 1990s), while manufacturers have become more innovative in making clothing lighter, more flexible and less stressful.

While there have been other forms of clothing available to firefighters – like PPE designed for wildland, technical rescue, liquid chemical splashes, and emergency medical operations – clothing elements certified to NFPA 1971 remain the principal PPE that firefighters wear to respond in the vast majority of incidents. Given what we have learned over the past several years as responses become more diverse, hazards more complicated and tradeoff decisions between protection, ergonomics and contamination control more difficult, it may be time to reexamine how multi-functional garments provide a safe and more effective form of protection during many fire department responses.

The impact of changing fire service roles on protection requirements

According to the NFPA, between 2016 and 2018, 62% of fire departments provided some form of EMS, with that percentage being significantly higher (>95%) for departments serving communities of 100,000 population or more. Reviewing the types of emergency responses reported by fire departments, beginning in 1980 and most recently reported in 2018, we see that non-fire calls include a significant percentage of medical aid calls (62.3%), with smaller percentages of hazmat calls (1.2%) and calls involving other hazardous conditions (1.9%). Fire calls that accounted for 3.6% of the responses in 2018 also include calls involving wildland firefighting, but the call type was not specified.

The NFPA also periodically undertakes a needs assessment for the fire service, covering a wide range of topics related to fire department and personnel capabilities and challenges. The most recent of these assessments, “Fourth Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service,” published in November 2016, covers personnel, facilities/apparatus, PPE, risk reduction, response capabilities, and communications/advanced technology.

This 2016 edition included responses from 5,100 departments, forming the basis of report recommendations. Of particular importance are the sections on personnel capabilities and the ability to handle challenging incidents.

The needs assessment reports roles other than structural firefighting at the following levels:

  • 73% of fire departments have medical aid or EMS calls.
  • 78% of fire departments undertake hazmat response.
  • 88% of fire departments respond to wildland or wildland/urban interface (WUI) fires.
  • 49% of fire departments indicate they can have technical rescue calls.

One section of the report evaluated fire department limitations in being able to respond to certain incidents that can be linked back to the lack of trained personnel or adequate resources, including PPE. For example, of the fire departments indicating their capabilities for wildland firefighting in 2018, 68% lacked specific wildland firefighting gear.

The amount of response activity other than structural firefighting points to potential unique needs for PPE. Though turnout gear can be used for any of these instances, it may be too heavy, bulky and stressful for non-structural fire emergencies, particularly as many other types of responses may be longer in their duration and require more optimally designed protection.

The questions then arise as to whether multi-functional gear can safely fulfill this range of missions and whether it is possible for fire departments to have clear rules for their use (notwithstanding the resources for their purchase).

Features and performance that define multi-functional gear

Multi-functional gear is nothing new. There are several manufacturers that have developed and positioned this type of clothing for the fire service.

The principle garment attributes for this clothing is its substantial lighter weight and more form-fitting designs, which allow greater mobility and lessen physiological stress on firefighters.

Because the high levels of thermal insulation associated with structural firefighting are not needed on all call types, these clothing items can still focus on materials and design that deliver needed performance. In many cases, the performance dictated by various response types can overlap, thus leading to the clothing being able to address specific hazard protection needs of the different emergency environments.

Moreover, some clothing has been designed to “shed” a liner (or outer shell), providing a degree of convertibility when some forms of protection are not needed. This is best illustrated when two-layer technical rescue gear having bloodborne pathogen performance can become single-layer wildland protective clothing when the barrier or liner layer is removed. The idea of convertibility is that the clothing is configured to provide only the needed protection, because overprotection creates unnecessary stress and restrictions on firefighters.

Most performance requirements for these products emanate from separate NFPA standards that are similar to the NFPA 1971 standard on structural firefighting protective clothing, but that also include significant dissimilarities based on different response environments, hazards and use expectations:

  • NFPA 1951 (2020) provides criteria for technical rescue operations, covering garments, helmets, gloves, footwear and goggles. Principle criteria address flame/heat resistance, physical protection and thermal comfort. Optional requirements apply additional tests for bloodborne pathogen protection.
  • NFPA 1977 (2016) sets requirements for wildland firefighting garments, helmets, gloves, footwear, face/neck shrouds, goggles and some other specialized PPE. In this standard, clothing elements are required to provide flame/heat resistance, radiant heat protection and thermal comfort. A newer edition of the standard will be released in 2021 with optional WUI requirements for particulate-blocking also provided for garments.
  • NFPA 1992 (2018) defines performance for liquid splash protective clothing, including garments, gloves, footwear and hoods, for preventing exposure to a larger set of liquid chemicals than addressed in NFPA 1971. This standard is in the process of being consolidated with other hazmat PPE standards, and the revised edition will be issued in late 2021.
  • NFPA 1999 (2018) establishes criteria for a wide range of clothing, including different types of garments, gloves, footwear, eye/face protection and helmets. The standard focuses on protection from bloodborne pathogens and in providing liquid integrity as the principle performance criteria.

The NFPA Technical Committee on Hazmat PPE intends to roll out a new form of flash fire protective clothing that is based on NFPA 1951 technical rescue clothing but has additional thermal insulation requirements and a chemical runoff test. This new type of PPE will be part of the consolidated Hazmat PPE standard available later in 2021. The new clothing will be known as “NFPA 1994 [Hazmat/CBRN] Class 5.”

While there can be conflicts with the application of some criteria from different standards, several manufacturers have developed clothing that meet multiple standards, sometimes with more than one configuration. These clothing items are touted for their ability to address a wide range of fire service responses other than structural firefighting, with less stress on the firefighter and, particularly, for allowing sufficient protection over longer-lasting emergencies.

An evolving industry and utility

Many fire departments have struggled with gaining two sets of clothing for their firefighters. The two-set approach has been implemented because firefighters need to have their gear cleaned more frequently due to rampant, justified concerns for exposure to carcinogens and other hazardous substances. This makes sense, but it is also logical that if firefighters wear their primary gear less frequently in functions other than structural firefighting, then there will be less exposure to contamination to firefighters from the use and handling of turnout gear. Further, with increased rates of cleaning, turnout clothing service life can be extended if alternative clothing is used for other types of missions instead of all responses. The converse argument is also possible: It is better to expose specialized clothing to unique hazards – blood/body fluids and hazardous chemicals – than it is for this exposure to occur for turnout clothing.

Increased fire service diversity in response operational hazards and mission requirements is not easily met with a one-size-fits-all PPE solution. This becomes especially evident in wildland firefighting, which, unlike structural firefighting, has much longer durations and less thermal exposure, meaning turnout clothing can be overkill. It has also shown that under special circumstances, such as incidents where firefighters wear their turnout clothing for COVID-19 responses, the challenges of disinfecting gear to ready it for reuse can compromise structural firefighting availability. On the other hand, it is impractical for departments to have structural gear and hazmat gear and EMS gear and wildland gear and technical rescue gear. Thus, if many of these other areas can be accommodated by multi-functional gear, then at least a two-ensemble system offers fire departments a range of protection capabilities.

We expect further transitions in the NFPA standards over the near future to better address the concept of multi-functional PPE performance and designs that include not only garments, but also helmets, gloves, footwear and hoods. With a focus on interoperability and greater consistency in design and performance criteria, it will be easier for manufacturers to make multi-functional gear that provides meaning increases in overall protective capabilities. The potential advantages of this approach will lessen exposure of firefighters to contaminated turnout clothing, increase turnout clothing life, and provide greater degrees of mobility and comfort when demanded by specialized responses.

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

[Read next: The next cultural shift: When to wear structural gear]

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.