Investing in turnout gear is a big deal. Not only do the garments your department chooses need to be breathable, comfortable and offer robust thermal protection, but the wrong selection could result in firefighters who are unhappy with their gear for years on end.
New technology is continually improving the comfort and functionality of turnout gear, so when it’s time to invest in new garments, it’s worth exploring your options. Departments that are embarking on wear trials should consider these best practices to help them make the best decisions possible.
SEVERAL FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Ordering new turnout gear can and should be more complex than arbitrarily selecting garments from a manufacturer’s website. This personal protective equipment (PPE) significantly impacts the health, safety and efficiency of a firefighter, so a multitude of factors need to be considered.
While most departments will always want turnout gear that performs better than their current PPE, it may be helpful to think about the raw materials within each fabric layer instead of the garment as a whole. Many departments also approach the process from a risk assessment standpoint.
“The NFPA spells out the things you should look at,” said Jeff Sedivec, a veteran firefighter and mid-channel business development, emergency response at TenCate Protective Fabrics. “Also think about what tactics your department uses, what kind of hazards you encounter and what the weather is like in your area.”
Even if you don’t name the specific materials you want, you can spell out the performance criteria, he continues. Departments can indicate they want garments with a specific thermal protective performance number, a specific total heat loss rating or other NFPA test criteria.
After determining which materials might be right for your department, it’s time to contact several manufacturers to schedule presentations for your crew. These meetings should cover the fit and function of their turnout gear options, review the ergonomics of their design and highlight what makes them unique.
Most departments then narrow their options down to three or four manufacturers and request test gear from each.
COMPARING APPLES TO APPLES
Surprisingly, the most difficult part of a wear trial comes next, says Sedivec. To accurately gauge the performance of different types of garments, a scientific approach must be used. Instead, some departments offer test turnout gear to their firefighters on a more casual basis. They’ll ask them to wear it for several months and to complete an evaluation at the end.
“The problem with that method is every individual has a different experience,” said Sedivec. “They’re on different shifts, some may have gotten fires while others might not have gotten fires, so it’s not apples-to-apples.”
To gather the most accurate feedback from crews possible, departments should develop more structured testing scenarios.
“Everyone can put the same gear on and come to training,” said Sedivec. “Everyone should do the same thing: do a hose lay, advance a hose, roll a hose, then throw a ladder. Have evolutions that are repeatable and then at the end, ask everyone how the turnout gear was.”
Rather than simply inquiring if they like the turnout gear, departments should get as much feedback as possible from each firefighter. Asking them about the mobility and ease of movement, for example, will help to better inform purchasing decisions.
After completing these same tasks in a controlled situation, crews can then take the test gear into the real world for longer periods and better assess additional factors like breathability, durability and overall comfort.
PITFALLS TO AVOID
The process of a wear trial can be very straightforward, but some departments deviate from the above recommendations in ways that can significantly affect their ability to make an educated decision.
Having at least a rough idea of the materials your department is interested in is key, especially if some manufacturers strongly push their own options during their presentation.
“You might end up with three different sets of gear in three different materials from three different manufacturers,” said Sedivec. “One could be super lightweight, one could be heavier and it’s definitely not an apples-to-apples situation.”
Some departments have a preference toward one specific manufacturer or dealer but will still go through the motions of receiving test gear from multiple companies, only to leave two of the three options still in the box when it’s time for the garments to be collected.
The importance of giving each set of test gear an honest try cannot be understated, either.
“I’ve seen departments issue test gear to someone and then never follow up with them,” he said. “That person might put on the new gear and say ‘Oh, I don’t really like this’ and just go back to his old, nice broken-in gear.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the research stage of the wear trial process might lead to unrealistic expectations. Departments might try to reinvent PPE by picking and choosing various options across multiple manufacturers, resulting in a garment that can’t actually be produced.
“What they’re saying is they want a Chevy truck with a Dodge rear end and a Cadillac grill,” said Sedivec.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
If it’s time for your department to invest in new turnout gear, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel with your upcoming wear trial. In many instances, departments already have strong relationships with vendors who can steer them in the right direction.
Weighing the importance of a manufacturer’s customer service along with how educated their salespeople are should play a role in your decision-making along with conducting your own research.
“Before you start any processes or choose anything, get yourself out there and learn as much as you can,” said Sedivec. “The more you know, the better choices you’re going to make.”
Visit TenCate Protective Fabrics for more information.