Can lightweight PPE be truly safe?
The international PPE industry is changing, with lightweight garments increasingly coming to the fore. But, is it possible that textile innovations can improve physiological conditions for fire fighters, whilst still ensuring adequate protection? What advances are taking place in the world of fabrics, to improve safety and comfort? And are there any stand-out examples of brigades leading the way? Rob Beadle, PPE specialist at technical textiles at Arville, discusses…
The PPE market is constantly evolving. Sometimes innovations may appear, at first glance, seemingly minor. Replacing heat-absorbent hi-vis trims, for example, with fabric that can dissipate stored energy, and reduce the risk of burns without compromising the material’s reflective properties, may only seem like a small adjustment. However, the process still requires years of research, development, testing and approval, and it is most definitely worth the effort. The resulting wellbeing and safety benefits, to the fire fighter, can be significant.
Other PPE developments are even more revolutionary. In such instances, the process can therefore take longer still, and the level of debate, on an international scale, is likely to be vast. But progress is not only important – it is imperative.
Take lightweight PPE, for example. There is a growing need to balance protection with physiology, which is admittedly no mean feat in heat-intensive situations. Of course the fire fighter needs to be safeguarded with robust, fire retardant PPE, but the dangers of ‘over protection’ must also be acknowledged. If moisture management is not specified in the PPE’s design, heat induced heart attacks or severe scalding from sweating, could pose risks to life equally as dangerous as the fires themselves.
The development of lightweight, flexible and breathable PPE is therefore not just driven by comfort-centric considerations. It could actually be considered a safety-critical situation.
Thankfully, due to textile innovations and the availability of high-performance yarns and treatments , it is possible to manufacture technically proficient PPE with different levels of thermal and chemical protection, fire retardance and water resistance. The durability of these textiles also ensures value for money, which is crucial in the cost-sensitive fire fighting sector.
Further modernisations mean woven textile-based PPE products can be designed, which are lightweight, flexible and breathable. The result is garments that are more wearable and that aid agility – particularly important when considering that only 5% of a fire fighter’s working life is spent in a fireground scenario. Flexibility, comfort and focus are especially important when speaking to a distressed individual in a trapped car, for instance.
However, such technological advances will also ensure the fire fighter is physiologically more comfortable during a heat-intensive emergency, due to the improved level of internal moisture management.
Layered PPE with carefully engineered fibre placement is driving much of the progress, and is a strategy being trialled in the UK, for example, by Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service.
Studies have shown that an inner garment made from absorbent fibres can help wick away and dissipate sweat. It facilitates moisture movement to keep the individual dry, without adding to the weight of the apparel.
Then there’s the PPE’s lining to consider. Quilted linings made from non-woven fibres may be breathable, but are bulky and not particularly ergonomic. That’s why they’re being replaced by more flexible PTFE membranes to aid water vapour transfer, moving moisture away from the individual and out of the garment.
The final requirement for the layered system is a durable, yet lightweight and breathable outer shell fabric that can form a barrier to heat and flames.
This layered system means the fire fighter can wear the level of protection required for the situation at hand, thus reducing the surplus weight carried when full PPE is not necessary.
It could even be argued that fire fighters’ underwear should form part of the PPE range, to ensure a truly layered approach and protection from the skin out. Otherwise, nylon undergarments could still pose a burn risk. This is something textiles specialists can tackle with ease, if brigades will allocate the budget. Unfortunately however, cost-driven decision making, whilst understandable, sometimes holds innovation back.
Of course any PPE developments need to be compliant with international safety standards such as EN469 and/or AS/NZS4967, and laboratory testing will assess the performance of lightweight fabrics under varied trial conditions.
But it is important to think above and beyond the standards – they should only be seen as setting the baseline. With engineering innovation and ever-smarter thinking, it is possible to design continually more advanced lightweight fabrics that strike an effective balance between protection and comfort.
David Matthews, a fire and industrial PPE specialist who has travelled the world to drive progress in this niche field, believes that a fire fighter is rarely ‘comfortable’ in the true sense of the word. However, because these personnel are constantly exposed to extremely heat-intense situations, it is important that textiles specialists – with the input of those in industry – continually innovate to achieve the aforementioned balance. Collectively, and collaboratively, we must ensure fire fighters are safe, but they should not be overprotected to the point that physiology in fact becomes an added danger.
It must be noted that safety and ‘comfort’ aren’t actually the only factors that need to be considered when it comes to lightweight PPE. Brigades understandably hone in on the likely lifespan of garments too, wary that longevity could be compromised if personnel must de-robe and wash the PPE after every incident. Textiles specialists are therefore working hard to manufacture long-lasting, compliant PPE fabrics that can maintain performance consistency even after repeated cleansing, thus controlling costs and protecting brigades’ return on investment.
Is there such thing as a single ‘best fit’ solution? Whilst it would be convenient to find a ‘one size suits all’ type of lightweight PPE, this is unlikely to be feasible in the world of fire fighting. The sheer level of diversity adds weight to the argument that industry standards can only outline the minimum quality benchmark. The demands placed on one fire fighter can vary significantly to the next. In the UK alone, for instance, it is naïve to think that a fire fighter in London should wear the same PPE as a fire fighter in Oxfordshire. The risks in the capital city are incredibly different to those in quieter residential suburbs where there are no metros or airports. The PPE requirements for that fire fighter are therefore very different too.
Look further afield and fire fighting conditions become even more varied. Wildfires, common in Australia for example, are often trickier to tackle than structural fires because of the added complexity of wind. This will further influence the requirements that the PPE must fulfil. It also perhaps goes some way to explaining why testing, in that part of the world, is so user-driven, and the market, steered by the Australian Fire Advice Council, is so advanced.
Industry input is also very prevalent in America, with fire fighters being extremely vocal and their viewpoints immediately taken on board. Unfortunately in some parts of Europe, contribution at steering committee level is less prevalent, again largely due to resource constraints.
But collaboration is important, as is talking. That’s why Arville has proactively established relationships with brigades and advisors throughout the UK and overseas – to understand exactly what the PPE needs to do, before textile developments even unfold.
The PPE market has come a long way over the years – it is startling to think back to when fire fighters worked in heavy woollen tunics and rubber pants. When changes first started to be implemented, fire fighters unsurprisingly expressed caution at the mention of lightweight materials. Nowadays, on the other hand, users will openly express how important lightweight really is.
For more information, go to www.arville.com