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The do’s and don’ts for customization of your PPE

It’s vital that any new features be added in a responsible fashion and in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions

Fire departments pride themselves on their protective ensembles. While these ensembles are intended to primarily provide protection under hazardous and dirty circumstances, their appearance and state of repair are an important symbol for the communities that firefighters serve.

It follows that many departments that buy gear to their own specifications like to also introduce features that distinguish their gear from other departments. Likewise, the upkeep of this gear — not only in having it cleaned regularly but also properly repaired — creates a public image that most organizations value. In this article, we cover some of the ways that departments can customize their gear and ways that they should not.

All ensemble elements for structural firefighting must be certified to NFPA 1971. This standard covers requirements for the essential parts for all ensemble elements. However, the standard does not address components or accessories unless they are deemed to affect a mandatory performance area of the respective element.

Part of the reason the standard does not attempt to address accessories is the fact that it is nearly impossible to anticipate every conceivable way that a protective element can be customized. Of course, the items that are most likely to have customization features include garments and helmets — gloves, footwear, and hoods rarely include any extra features that allow departments to distinguish their protective gear. That fact, and the experience that shows what departments commonly specify for their garments and helmets, does limit to some degree what is possible.

Customization and optional features for garments and helmets can be added responsibly or they can become a hazard if they are inappropriate for the element and/or not properly installed. Manufacturers who are responsible for fabricating the element are careful to consider the ramifications of added components or accessories.

Patches and emblems
Probably the most ordinary customization is the application of patches and emblems or lettering to garments. Many departments utilize patches that bear their department shield or other heraldry. Often departments will have the national and state flags attached to the garment.

Manufacturers who apply these emblems or patches judiciously choose components that are made of inherently flame resistant or flame retardant treated materials that will not pose ignition or melting hazards to the wearer.

Consequently emblems and patches get tested for flame and heat resistance. But there are some departments that elect to add patches, emblems, and similar items after they receive the gear from the manufacturer. When this happens, it is critically important that the fiber contents and construction materials of the patches or emblems be evaluated for flame and heat resistance.

Installing flammable materials on the exterior of the clothing is an invitation for disaster since anything that ignites on the surface of the clothing will cause more rapid deterioration of the underlying areas, and consequent great heat transfer and damage.

Even patches that appear suitable can pose unseen dangers. Given enough heat, glue backings used in some patches or emblems can melt through the outer shell. When emblems or patches are being sewn onto the garment, then melt-resistant Aramid thread must be used in their installation.

The same is true for embroidery. Some treated materials can lose their retardant properties early into a high heat exposure and cause significant deterioration of the underlying portion of the clothing. If a department chooses to customize its clothing with specific patches, it must do so by checking with the manufacturer as to the safety or efficacy of the proposed alteration, and proceed in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.

Names on back
Another fairly common way that fire departments customize their clothing is to uniquely identify each firefighter with their name on the back of the coat in fluorescent and/or retroreflective lettering.

This lettering consists of reflective materials that are generally cut into letters by either the manufacturer or material supplier. While this lettering usually works well with shorter names, manufacturers have become pretty creative in fitting long, complicated names onto the clothing as well.

Some manufacturers first attach the letters to a piece of outer shell fabric and then sew the “name plate” onto the clothing. This makes it easier to change out clothing and alter names when needed. However, many departments specify fire fighter names be sewn directly onto the garments.

Although it is not required, the lettering should have the same visibility performance characteristics as the trim that is used for day and nighttime visibility to be effective in identifying firefighters on the fireground.

Like emblems and patches, lettering must also be flame and heat resistant. Again, the clothing manufacturers are required to ensure these qualifications are met, but when resellers or the departments themselves get involved in installing lettering, it is important to check that the intended materials will meet the appropriate requirements and are attached in a way that will not cause hazards or result in the need for early repairs.

Departments may implement a myriad of other customization features for their garments. Pocket size and placement are a feature that becomes a functional issue for many departments, particularly the position of radio pockets and other accessories that are needed for firefighters to communicate or operate hands free as much as possible.

The addition of pockets might seem trivial, but certain requirements exist, which mandate the drainage and flaps for some types of pockets. These features are generally only added by the manufacturer, so their construction will most likely comply with relevant criteria and take into consideration firefighter safety.

Harnesses and belts
Another recently popular form of customization is the incorporation of harnesses, belts, and other means to assist firefighters in operations or to provide a means of emergency egress. These options must be carefully considered, and there are aspects for the performance of the item itself.

For example, if the item is intended for fall protection, it must meet relevant fall protection criteria, such as those that are provided in NFPA 1983 Standard on Life Safety Rope and Equipment for Emergency Service. At the same time, the manner of the accessory’s integration into the clothing should not compromise the performance of the garment as normally used.

Another consideration would be that portions of a harness which extend from the garment should not permit avenues of liquid penetration into the garment. There are also issues concerning the flame and heat resistance of these items because in essence they become part of the garment.

For helmets, many departments like to distinguish firefighter by the color of the helmet shell, but there are several other customization features. Like garments, the principal customization is for identification of the department.

This is primarily achieved by the choice of a shield or emblem which indicate the fire department name, company, or other information. The shield provides a unique identity to the fire department and individual firefighter.

A certain area of reflective markings is required on helmets, and some departments specify additional markings or emblems. Decals can be placed on helmets, but are sometimes not flame resistant and have poor durability on the fireground.

Many departments and firefighters use bands or other devices to hold tools or other equipment, such as flashlights, on their helmets. Of course anything that is held on top of the helmet can melt when subjected to high heat or flame, so care and common sense must be applied to any accessory that is mounted on a helmet.

The same rules apply for helmets as do for garments. If something is added to the helmet (beyond that authorized by the manufacturer), then it must not compromise the protective performance of the helmet.

Customization is an option for certain protective elements of the protective ensemble that allow fire departments to add both distinctive features or enhance the functionality of the element.

It is important that these features be added in a responsible fashion and in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. If there any doubt, contact the manufacturer first before making a change or addition to your protective element. The primary objective of your firefighting garments and helmets is for your protection.

Please be safe. We would like to wish our readers a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

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.