By Tom Hainsworth
Manufacturers working in the PPE industry appreciate only too well the huge responsibility which is bestowed upon them.
This is not just a responsibility to develop and produce the highest quality fabrics and garments to be worn by firefighters, although clearly this is important.
The biggest responsibility, and something enshrined in Hainsworth’s own mission statement, is to ensure that the garments worn by our fire services in all the different scenarios they face offer the best possible protection.
When asked what our number one objective is, my reply is always the same: “To protect individuals that work in hazardous environments from burn injury so they return home safely to their families”.
Those responsible for developing the firefighting standards and ensuring that they continue to be as relevant as possible to the challenges faced by firefighters are looking for a number of attributes from industry suppliers.
One of the most important is the expectation that manufacturers will continue to demonstrate innovation in their product development.
Innovation needs to be backed up by a strong understanding of the science behind the performance of the products that have been developed and a thorough appreciation of the risks being faced by the end user. Only by understanding these two areas well, can you properly assess the performance of the innovation in real life.
Every product developed by Hainsworth is subject to the most stringent levels of testing in our own accredited laboratory and like other leading manufacturers we pride ourselves on the attention to detail.
The design of fabrics is heavily influenced by the environment in which the firefighter operates and how the garments will be worn.
For example, the outer shell of a structural firefighter’s kit is designed to minimise the effects of heat stress and protect against the risk of flashover, while the inner lining helps to move moisture away as fast as possible.
However, in the case of the wildland firefighter, there is only one layer which is both the outershell and next to the skin and therefore has to prevent heat from getting in while also moving moisture away. All kit has to be robust enough to offer high levels of thermal and mechanical protection while also being light and breathable enough to minimise heat stress.
Heat stress is the biggest killer of firefighters in the world and is a threat to both structural and wildland firefighters. However, the particular design and use of fabrics differs according to the specific environments encountered.
A firefighter tackling a fire in a burning building will typically be confronted by extreme levels of heat for a relatively short period, whereas a firefighter battling a wildland blaze will be exposed to extreme heat (in the case of the recent wildland fires in New South Wales and Tasmania temperatures hit 45 degrees Celsius) over a much longer period of time.
Heat stress, if not managed and monitored effectively, not only endangers the life of a firefighter but, on a more day to day basis, can seriously harm someone’s decision-making ability which, in turn, puts the lives of colleagues on the line.
As highlighted earlier, a manufacturer is expected to have a comprehensive understanding of the science which underpins the development of specific products.
The body’s internal core temperature is closely regulated and remains within a very tightly defined range from approximately 36-38 degrees C (97-99.5 degrees F). This temperature range is maintained by controlling the equilibrium between the amount of heat the body produces through physical activity, the amount of heat stored by the body and the amount of heat lost to the surroundings through sweat evaporation and heat radiation, convection and conduction aided by vasodilation.
When the ambient temperature of the surroundings rises to above 35 degrees C (95 degrees F), heat loss through radiation, convection and conduction stops and the only way left for the body to cool itself is through sweat evaporation. This will also stop if the heat and humidity becomes excessive, causing the body to store the excess heat produced and produce a rise in the core body temperature.
Firefighter standards are not only rigorous in terms of the importance of the levels of protection offered, they also expect manufacturers to go considerably further. One of the biggest challenges facing those involved in the garment manufacturing process is to marry the best possible protection with the best possible levels of comfort.
It is absolutely essential that those involved in the PPE industry also demonstrate the ability to work in collaboration. Collaboration is essential because a complete understanding is not held by any individual fire service or member of the supply chain.
For example, a firefighter needs to have an understanding of dynamic risk assessment so he can make the right call, while an understanding of the human body and the science behind burn injury is also beneficial to aid the development of PPE standards.
Meanwhile, the garment manufacturer needs to understand fit, comfort and the relationship between that and protection, while a fabric innovator, such as Hainsworth, needs to have an appreciation of all of these requirements as well as an in-depth understanding of how different fibres react in different environments.
Quality control is another important requirement ensuring that the materials used in manufacturing process are from reputable sources.
For more than 200 years, my own company has been importing Australian Merino wool for use in our Yorkshire textile mill.
The qualities of Merino wool have been known for centuries, not least its ability to regulate temperature to keep you cool when it is hot and warm when you are cold.
Now, thanks to advances in textile production and finishing, the many benefits of wool are making a comeback into the world of PPE, but with a modern twist.
Australian Merino wool has a big future in the manufacture of firefighters’ kit. An example of this is Hainsworth® ECO-DRY, an innovative range of lining fabrics incorporating the many benefits of wool to provide today’s firefighter with the highest possible standards of comfort when wearing their PPE.
Another important consideration is value – but the right kind of value. There should be no place in the PPE industry for suppliers hoping to make a quick profit.
It is the companies which take the long-term view, and invest serious time in properly understanding the requirements of our firefighters, which will build and sustain lasting relationships.
Value should be about understanding the whole life cost of a product. For example, a product with better durability may cost more at the beginning but over a period of time, it will give far greater value than an inferior product which cost less at the outset.
The challenge facing the PPE industry is to continually demonstrate that the fabrics and products that they are bringing to the market offer value for money – not in the crudest sense of the cheapest in price, but in the more sophisticated sense that they provide long-term value for money.