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Editor's note: With firefighters facing new roadside vest regulations, Jeffrey and Grace Stull take a look here at actual turnout gear visibility – and explain why the same fluorescent material used in industrial high-visibility safety apparel cannot be used for firefighter protective clothing.

By Jeffrey O. Stull and Grace G. Stull

Photo Tod Parker/PhotoTac.com

What makes a firefighter look like a firefighter is their protective clothing and equipment. Firefighters' bunker gear provides a distinctive appearance unlike other work uniforms worn in other occupations.

The combination of the protective helmet, coat, pants, hood, gloves, footwear, and self-contained breathing apparatus easily distinguish firefighters to the everyday citizen. Even with the variations of clothing designs and materials in the marketplace, firefighters are easily recognizable. Yet, one feature that we now take for granted is the reflective striping that appears on both clothing and helmets. This striping not only defines what a firefighter looks like, it has important life safety functions for protecting the firefighter.

But recently it's the use of high-level visibility vests by firefighters that has become a hot-button topic. A new regulation drawn up by the Department of Transportation (DOT) will require all workers on the right-of-way of a Federal-aid highway who are exposed to traffic or heavy equipment to wear high visibility apparel that is defined as compliant to ANSI 107-2004 performance Class 2 or Class 3.

According to the regulation, NFPA 1971 compliant firefighter protective clothing by itself is insufficient to be worn in highway situations. But this lack of compliance only exists because bunker gear does not have enough background fluorescent material to meet either Class 2 or Class 3 requirements.

Important role
The DOT regulation does not deny the value of trim on firefighter garments. Rather trim on firefighter protective clothing retains an important safety role in allowing firefighters to be seen and recognized at emergencies. The supplemental use of industrial high level visibility vests represents a tradeoff for gaining greater visibility when dictated by the low visibility hazards on the roadway. However, trim on firefighter clothing is the only means to offer safe use and visibility at the same time where flame and heat hazards exist. It is always important to ensure maximum firefighter safety by addressing visibility, as a minimum with trim on firefighter clothing and supplemented as necessary with properly designed high level visibility apparel.

The reflective striping, or trim as it is commonly called, is provided on firefighter clothing to enhance firefighter visibility to others. This visibility is needed on the fireground as well as for operations that take place at such places as disaster sites, where there may be moving machinery. Trim materials include both fluorescent and retroreflective components for daytime and for nighttime visibility of the firefighter. The retroreflective trim is either completely fluorescent or includes parts of the material that are fluorescent (trim may either be solid fluorescent or have separate bands of fluorescence across the width of the material).

Fluorescence refers to a brightness of color or an intensity for the color that is relatively visible under daytime conditions. However, in order to be considered ANSI compliant, the color must be in contrast to the background environment. This is why fluorescent colors such as lime yellow or orange-red are used on protective clothing; however the choice of which fluorescent color trim to use rests entirely with the department. For example, lime yellow trim may be considered more noticeable when used on black and gold colored outer shells, but perhaps not as effective when on a yellow shell. In the case of a yellow colored outer shell, many departments prefer a red orange fluorescent trim.

 Whereas industrial garments are comprised of a significant portion of fluorescent background material, firefighter garments have fluorescence limited to the bands of trim placed over non-fluorescent outer shell material.

Nighttime visibility of trim comes from its retroreflective properties. Trim contains small beads or prisms that act to reflect light back to the direction of its source. This property makes the trim material appear extremely bright. This brightness increases as the light becomes closer to the material and is the same property that appears in roadway signs. For this reason, trim is placed in specific patterns to outline the human form where movement will signify that the lit object is a person; hence the use of trim on a coat hemline, coat sleeves, and at the bottom of trouser cuffs.

In order for trim to be used in the construction of firefighter protective clothing, it must not only provide sufficient visibility in fluorescence and retroreflection properties (under expected fireground conditions of heat and wetness), but it must also be safe for use in extreme thermal exposures. For this reason, NFPA 1971 requires that trim must meet the same flame and heat-resistance requirements as other materials used in the manufacture of firefighter protective clothing. This means trim must continue to function on the fireground and must not contribute to the injuries of the firefighter under adverse exposure conditions.

Horizontal bands
Trim is provided in a pattern on firefighter clothing in horizontal bands. One band encircles the torso at the coat hemline, and one band is placed at the chest line on the coat front. There is also a band of trim at each of the coat sleeves on both arms. Manufacturers have the option of using two vertical stripes rising up from the bottom torso band at the back of the coat, or using a horizontal band midpoint on the coat back. Likewise, manufacturers can stagger parts of the trim bands around the lower sleeves. For trousers, bands are also required at the bottom of each leg. The minimum standard pattern specified for firefighter protective clothing in NFPA 1971 is to provide observer recognition of the firefighter in a consistent manner.

In the past, the practice had been to specify a minimum area of trim coverage on all garments, but this approach yielded different patterns on clothing depending on its size. The establishment of a standard pattern further improves the ease of seeing the firefighter in that trim placement outlines the body for recognition of firefighters by oncoming motorists.

Trim and other visibility materials are also used extensively by other worker groups, most notably by highway workers and construction crews that work on roadways. These workers are identified by fluorescent vests that include similar striping or tapes as found on firefighter clothing. But the areas of fluorescence are provided in the primary garment or background material. For industry, high-visibility safety materials must conform to American National Standards Institute (ANSI) number 107, Standard on High Visibility Safety Apparel and Headwear. Unlike NFPA 1971 that applies to firefighter protective clothing, ANSI 107 sets minimum areas of fluorescent and retroreflective materials on garments and defines three classes based on the relative risk of being struck by vehicles or moving machinery. More fluorescent and retroreflective material must be used in garments that have higher classes of performance. ANSI 107 does prescribe some placement of retroreflective material, but for the most part, the entire garment offers visibility whether a vest, jacket, or coverall.

The difference between industrial worker and firefighter protective clothing visibility is the amount of fluorescent material. Whereas industrial garments are comprised of a significant portion of fluorescent background material, firefighter garments have fluorescence limited to the bands of trim placed over non-fluorescent outer shell material. The large required areas of fluorescent material have essentially been defined in industrial apparel on the basis for ensuring that the individual wearer has a greater degree of visibility in daytime situations. For this reason, many fire departments provide their firefighters supplemental ANSI 107-compliant vests when engaged in vehicle accidents and other roadside emergencies.

The same fluorescent material used in industrial high visibility safety apparel cannot be used for firefighter protective clothing. Today's material technology has yet to provide fabrics that can retain fluorescence and still be flame resistant. Moreover, fluorescent fabrics can only be effective when kept clean. The nature of fireground operations results in fabrics being easily soiled, which quickly diminishes their daytime visibility qualities. Consequently, if firefighters are required to wear supplemental higher level visibility vests, it must be recognized that these vests have no requirements for flame resistance and could lead to serious injury if exposed to flame or high heat.

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