Protection in the face of new challenges

Protection in the face of new challenges

Roger Startin, Joint Managing Director of Bristol Uniforms, explores the new and emerging dangers faced by today’s firefighters, and the importance of continuously refining PPE to keep firefighters safe. 

The role of firefighters and the hazards they are likely to face are ever-evolving and are becoming more complex.  Today, thanks largely to better fire prevention programmes and measures, firefighters around the world are spending much less time actually fighting fires.  Instead, they are faced with a host of other emergency incidents including road traffic accidents, medical emergencies and natural disasters. And now, firefighters are having to deal with these difficult situations in the midst of a global pandemic, when there is the additional danger of contracting Covid-19.  

Now, more than ever, PPE needs to provide maximum protection so that firefighters can confidently carry out their role, whatever they are faced with. PPE designers and manufacturers are rising to the challenge of adapting protective clothing to combat a range of new and emerging threats.  


By nature of the job, when dealing with road accidents and natural disasters, firefighters are likely to come into close contact with others and need to be protected from pathogens.  With the current coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe, firefighters need to be more careful than ever when working in proximity to victims and colleagues, and need to feel confident that their clothing will protect them against both blood borne and airborne diseases.  

Firefighters in Zagreb in Croatia were recently honoured for their bravery when responding to an earthquake at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in April. Measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale, it was the largest earthquake to rock the capital city in 140 years, and tremors were felt as far as southern Austria and Slovenia. Sadly, one person died, and 27 people were injured.  Firefighters were faced with thousands of damaged buildings, crushed cars, and roads blocked by falling masonry.  The rescue effort involved technical rescue in confined spaces, meaning that firefighters had to be absolutely confident in their protective clothing to deal effectively with the crisis.


The rise of fires in waste and recycling centres has become problematic in many countries. In the Middle East, recycling is on the rise with collection programmes now established in many countries including UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  However, it seems recycling centres are particularly susceptible to fire outbreaks, due to the collection and storage of compacted combustible materials such as paper, plastics and wood.  In the UK, fire services attend more than 300 fires a year at waste and recycling plants.  Once started, fires are hard to contain and extinguish.  Frequently, these centres contain dangerous and potentially toxic materials.  Waste can include gas cylinders, flammable liquids and aerosols, and lithium batteries from electrical goods. Firefighters tackling these fires are not always sure what materials they are dealing with, and how they could impact their health.  

When faced with these kinds of fires, firefighters need robust breathing apparatus to ensure they don’t inhale harmful gases, and their PPE needs to protect against any dangerous materials and particles that could damage the body or be absorbed through exposed skin.

Smoke particles

The long-term health risks associated with inhaling smoke are widely accepted across the industry, but there is now additional concern about the risks of absorbing carcinogenic substances through the skin. Significant evidence confirms that accumulative or acute workplace exposure to Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), or soot, is directly linked to cancers such as lung, thyroid, bladder and testicular. This has immediately presented a new objective for the industry, to ensure that PPE acts as a barrier to toxins and potentially harmful particles.

PPE Solutions 

Fabric Layers : Selecting the right fabric for PPE is the first step in providing optimum protection for the environment you are operating in. Leading international fibre manufacturers such as PBI Performance Products and DuPont, and fabric manufacturers such as WL Gore and Hainsworth, have developed several highly specialised materials offering a range of benefits. Over and above resistance to fire, and used in combination, these fabrics can offer increased breathability, control of moisture, and protection against pathogens, hazardous chemicals, smoke particles and
the elements.

Good quality structural firefighting protective clothing comprises three layers: an outer layer, a moisture barrier and a thermal barrier. These work together to provide ultimate protection against external and internal health risks. The outer layer protects against flame, and is water resistant, acting as a barrier to harmful materials and pathogens. Moisture barriers  are microporous and perform a dual function by preventing the ingress of water whilst also allowing perspiration and heat to escape.  This is essential for keeping the body cool and dry, and reduces the risk of heat stress. The thermal barrier is comfortable against the skin and helps to keep the body warm in cooler temperatures. 

These three layers are brought together in unique combinations and tested against all relevant international standards by independent laboratories. Bristol’s firefighter clothing is certified to a range of internationally recognised standards including those for Europe (EN), the USA (NFPA) and the International Standards Organisation (ISO). The PPE is measured for performance against a number of criteria which include thermal protective performance; total heat loss; conductive and compressive heat resistance; heat transfer (radiation and convective); water vapour resistance and resistance to liquid chemicals.

Particulate Protection : Whilst good quality PPE offers a robust barrier against toxins, smoke particles and pathogens, there are areas of the body that remain vulnerable to exposure. Structural firefighting jackets, trousers and helmets provide good general protection on the torso, arms, legs, and top of the head, but the neck and jaw areas are particularly susceptible to exposure. Other areas of concern are around the wrists, where ill-fitting gloves or sleeves can leave areas of the skin exposed.

It is therefore vital that all sets of PPE kit are fully compatible, so that boots, gloves and helmets operate effectively with trousers and coats, without leaving any areas of the body vulnerable.  At Bristol, we offer a wide range of combinations to make up a full kit, and all of these are compatibility tested to ensure the garments work effectively together to provide full body protection.

In addition, fabric and fibre manufacturers have been working hard to develop new materials that can at once filter harmful particles whilst allowing heat and moisture to escape.  The innovative new Nomex NanoFlex particulate barrier from Dupont has been specially developed for this purpose and has been incorporated into the development of our new Particulate Protection Hood.  Worn under the helmet and collar, it covers the vulnerable neck and jawline areas, and is proven to be 99.8% efficient at preventing particle exposure. At the same time, the hood is also lightweight, soft and breathable, allowing heat and moisture to escape.

Cleaning : Over and above producing PPE that acts as a barrier to harmful toxins and pathogens, the regular, professional cleaning of kit has also become more important than ever.  It is understood that the coronavirus can survive on surfaces for up to 72 hours.  Equally, research shows that toxins including dangerous PAHs can linger on PPE and be cross-transferred from person to person, and from vehicles to fire stations.   As a result, many countries have introduced preventative practices across the industry such as the swift removal and professional cleaning of PPE following an incident, using wet wipes to clean particularly vulnerable areas such as the face and neck immediately, and showering and changing on return to the fire station.   

At Bristol Uniforms, we are constantly striving to create new PPE solutions that successfully offer protection against fire and other hazards, whilst enabling the wearer to carry out the job without hindrance and in comfort. We understand that whilst protection against fire remains an essential element of PPE for firefighters, garments also need to be adapted to protect firefighters in the countless other emergency situations they are likely to face.  We will continue to explore new ways of maximising safety in PPE, so that our customers across the globe are protected and ready to tackle new challenges. 

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