DuPont hosted a round table debate at Nottinghamshire Fire & Rescue headquarters to encourage a discussion about topical issues regarding PPE in the Fire & Rescue sector.

The aim of the round table debate DuPont organised was to open up the discussion about personal protective equipment (PPE) and help fire fighters to understand and make better decisions related to protective equipment.

Round Table Debate

The debate was attended by a panel of leading fibre manufacturers, weavers, garment manufacturers, and Chief Fire Officers who answered questions posed by Fire Times’ readers around three topics – heat stress, breakopen and cost vs wearlife.

In this, the first of two parts, Fire Times reports on the outcome of the debate on heat stress.

The participants included:

  • Frank Swan (FS) , Chief Fire Office at Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service
  • Gary Philips (GP), Deputy Chief Fire Office at Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service
  • Mark Drysdale (MD), Commercial Manager – Protectivewear Fabrics at Heathcoat Fabrics
  • Symon Clifford (SC), Chief Fire Officer at Bristol Airport Fire Department
  • Charlotte Brandt (CB), Sales Manager at Hainsworth
  • Richard Ballheimer (RB), Service Delivery Manager at Lion Apparel
  • Zoltan Nahoczky (ZN), Marketing Manager at DuPont Protection Technologies
  • Ian Mitchell (IM), Joint Managing Director, Bristol Uniforms
  • Anthony Norbury (S1), Retired Fire Officer, Round Table Chair
  • George Farenden, Consultant at DuPont
  • David Holden, Fire Times

Nottinghamshire round table debate part 1: PPE heat stress

S1     Heat stress is still a relatively unknown issue in the UK and there’s general consensus amongst fabric and garment manufactures that the fire fighters are unaware of the dangers of heat stress and the way the condition affects cognitive processes. The construction and design of outerwear is also critical to the health and well being of the fire fighter and the wrong construction can increase the dangers of heat stress. Studies have shown that the psychological effect of a shout can itself increase stress levels and body temperature before the fire fighter’s physical work has started. Heat generated needs to be released and therefore it is critical that fabrics breathe. The weight of the garments will play a major role in the effectiveness of performance too. Understanding more about this issue is crucial to the ongoing welfare of the fire fighter.

FS     I don’t believe that fire fighters are unaware. I think the amount of work that we’ve done in recent years and the amount of training and input they’re now getting has probably raised that topic quite considerably. The reality is that in active fire fighting they are less likely to fall back on their training knowledge than they would in training, and the task at hand becomes the priority. I think it’s about trying to educate and maintain that information flow so that when they’re in the active fire fighting role, they are paying due course to the capability of their body in the heat. It’s about making sure that their training remains at the forefront of their thoughts when they’re in active fire fighting mode.

GP    Well I fully agree with you, Frank. We are aware because in services like West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service, that is predominantly a retained service, fire fighters come to the station to go out on a shout, they’ve got state of the art equipment that they’re going to wear, but underneath they’re liable to be wearing a pair of jeans or something similar. These are the issues that we need to think about – how the kit works when the clothes they’re wearing underneath are different.

MD    From a manufacturers point of view the question of heat stress obviously comes up a lot of the time, but I think understanding the problem is only one aspect of it. Manufacturers will be expected to come up with a solution, but there are diverse situations that the fire fighters might find themselves in. Often we’re looking for one piece of kit that will fit all eventualities and of course all those eventualities are very different. However, there are other things to be taken into account. Fire kit is made of a composite of materials. Consider an outer shell as a solution to finding something that provides the most breathability, the most comfort, and the least heat stress. That’s only part of the equation when you then associate that with membranes, thermal liners and lining fabrics too.

SC    The compatibility of undergarments has always been an issue. We’ve never been quite clear as to what we can and can’t wear.

IM     I think garment manufacturers over the last 20 or 30 years have come a long way. There’s been so much emphasis on trying to protect the fire fighter so the developments in fabrics have largely been focused on increasing protection. We’ve come a long way since PVC wet legs and woolen tunics! I think we’ve got to a point where we’ve pretty much optimised thermal protection and it’s now time to have a much more considered view about the physiological aspects and heat stress. Ultimately garment manufacturers have to adhere to the standards that are set down for making fire kits and the tests that are associated with that and at the moment all the compulsory elements of the testing are largely concerned with thermal protection. The physiological aspects that affect heat stress are only an informative annex of the standard and it’s not a compulsory part of the standard. Until that changes it will always be a secondary consideration. At the end of the day it’s trying to get that compromise between thermal protection and comfort and it’s a balancing act because the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

CB    Everyday shouts that fire fighters have, that’s where heat stress plays a part as well. When you’re fighting a fire you will have heat, but it’s the day to day comfort issues that we try to address above everything.

RB    I don’t think it’s really a one size fits all, it’s always that balance. However, if within the standard it was compulsory that heat stress had to be a major element, then obviously there would be far more focus on it.

MD    We would love there to be a different solution for every scenario, but we have to work in the real world. There are ways of addressing this, such as the layered approach and having appropriate garments that you add to depending on the hazard that you’re facing. The problem with that is actually managing it.

GP    And the difficulty with reaching out to retained personnel is getting them to understand what their kit does for them. A retained fire fighter will slip on kit and underneath he’s got a pair of jeans and a jumper. Within ten minutes he’s complaining that the kit is too hot.

ZN    Yes, it’s a very complex issue, but we can look at the function of the outer shell in a multilayer garment and how it helps the removal of moisture from the body. The proper air permeability within the outer shell with the proper weight can really help the membrane to breathe and get the body functioning better in the self-cooling process. Also we should look at the air permeability of the outer shell, not only when the outer shell is new, but also when it has been washed five, ten or twenty times.

FS     I think the reality now is that given the success of the prevention strategy over the last ten years fire fighters are more likely to be exposed to heat and a hot environment in training than they are in actual practice. It could be three or four years after joining the job before they’re exposed to a real risk. It’s about educating the individuals about the effects of heat stress as well as recognizing that exposure is rare these days.

S1     Neil Green, Defence Fire and Response Management Office (DFRMO), asks: “How do we justify allowing our personnel to suffer from the effects of heat stress when we know there are modern materials and textiles available that may be more expensive, but are proven to reduce the cases of heat stress significantly?”

FS     I don’t think we do justify. The reality of course is that more modern materials become available at various times and unfortunately most fire and rescue services, whether they’re private, public, airport, are in a cycle and will replace their PPE every so often. If a new technology comes out tomorrow I’m not in a position to purchase that for another five or six years because I’ve just gone through the comprehensive PPE replacement programme. The moment we’re in a position to replace our PPE, we will do it, utilizing whatever technology is available; but until that point we’ve got to live with what we’ve got.

MD    And the other thing is that you may have one particular fabric or component that is fantastic for heat stress, but as soon as you put it into an assembly with other things, then it negates the effect of the original fabric.

CB    There needs to be a holistic approach.

S1     Bryn Coleman, Nottingham Fire and Rescue Service: “Over the summer we have issues with heat stress in forest fires and it’s been suggested that we look at a suitable Nomex® type, long sleeved shirt, which could be worn to reduce heat stress, as none are currently available on the UK market”.

RB    Across Europe, as well as in the States, Nomex® trousers and shirts are worn underneath fire kit, but the standard EN469 states that garments have to be standalone in terms of providing protection.

CB    There are Wildland standards available.

IM     Yes there are, but it all comes down to cost and you can’t have a specific item of PPE for every single scenario because the budget won’t stretch that far. Ultimately you have to provide a garment that’s going to cover the worst case scenario and work at the design and the material construction to try and negate the effects of heat stress in a lesser situation.

S1     Question three is from one of our panel members, Symon Clifford: “We have covered every part of the body so there are no senses exposed to possible hazards and as a result are we creating a more dangerous situation for the fire fighter?”

FS     Since we’ve changed our PPE we’ve been able to get that awareness because they feel the heat much earlier than they used to. We’ve had to change the whole philosophy and their thought process, but now if it’s getting hot it means you have to withdraw. So your PPE selection can assist, but then it’s about ‘information, education and training’.

IM     However, with all the best will in the world, and all the education you put into them, there’s the human factor, isn’t there?

ZN    There is also responsibility from the fibre, fabric or garment manufacturers regarding how much they promote the marketing claims about protection. Would we want to create a garment that protects against three to five flashovers or even up to ten? I think there is a level of responsibility that we don’t overstate things that in reality don’t work.

CB    It’s possible to create such a garment, but aren’t we forgetting the wearer? The garment may survive that, but what about the fire fighter?

Click here to read part two, reporting on the debate around break open and cost vs. wearlife.