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Lessons I've learned

23 January 2013

PPE has come a long way since I joined the Fire and Rescue Service. In 1980 firefighters were issued with a cork helmet which had a leather chin strap and metal suds so you could burn your face if you were exposed to heat.

Ian Moses: R&D manager for equipment management, supply management and PPE, Grampian Fire & Rescue Service Ian joined the fire & rescue service in 1980 and assumed responsibility for buying and specifying protective garments in 1986. Ian is currently the research and development manager responsible for equipment management, supply management, and all PPE

PPE has come a long way since I joined the Fire and Rescue Service. In 1980 firefighters were issued with a cork helmet which had a leather chin strap and metal suds so you could burn your face if you were exposed to heat. They were also given a wool jacket which wasn't waterproof and had no durability, PVC trousers which melted in heat and cracked in the cold weather, chrome leather gloves with elastic cuffs, which offered no protection from heat or wet conditions and rubber boots.

In 1988 A26 a new standard for fire fighters garments came in, and everything changed. We were approached by Gore in 1987 who introduced us to a three layer GORE-TEX fabric/Nomex textile for tunics and trousers; this offered our firefighters a level of protection never seen before. In 1995 when EN469 was being introduced we replaced laminated outer shells with a removable drop liner system with Gore fire blocker, now CROSSTECH fabrics. We believe what we have now is the most thermally stable garment possible.

Only the other week, two Phoenix fire fighters fell though a roof into a fire, and because of the levels of protection they were wearing, survived. But it's not just about survival, it's about reducing or eliminating injuries, or reducing them to an absolute minimum. Fire fighting is dangerous, always was, and always will be, and with the increases in fuel loads, that wont diminish.

Fires burn hotter and faster today than they ever have before because of the prevalence of synthetic materials present in most buildings. So while PPE has come a long way in its protective abilities we need continual improvement in standards, specifications and of course most importantly, the performance.

Knowing that our firefighters have the best that's available with regards to PPE means I never wake in the morning and worry that we could have done better. The fact that we introduced an independent testing regime in 1995 on used garments, tests carried both in the UK and USA, confirm that the performance levels are maintained up to the day we retire the PPE.

Every effort is made to ensure that firefighters inspect their PPE and looking after PPE is essential so each firefighter is issued with their own personal log book. It is their responsibility to carry out inspections on the PPE they has been issued with. We train our firefighters and issue a comprehensive guidance document instructing how they should carry out the inspections. All inspections are countersigned by the officer in charge and the results are recorded in the book which allows us to carry out safety audits.

“You can't solve one problem by creating another,” is one of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given in my career. You will only get the right answers if you ask the right questions is another, so know what you need, and talk to everyone. And finally, remember that compliance to a standard is exactly that, no more, but no less. Everyone has a legal and moral obligation to ensure that whatever you buy still attains the required performance up to the day you retire it.

Most people think fluorescent yellow is the best colour to wear to be visible but this is not necessarily the case. EN471 tests show its fluorescence is higher than anything else but the point of wearing High-Visibility garments is to be conspicuous at anytime and in any conditions including in fog, at dusk and sometimes in places where there is no external light source. In some of these cases yellow doesn't work very well whereas a combination of of other colours might work much better. I'd like to see developments in High Visibility garments, alternative colours and different colours in reflective tapes.

There are very few things that frustrate me but perceptions as opposed to good hard facts is one thing, particularly on subjects like heat stress There seems to be a perception in the fire and rescue service that garment weight and insulative properties, have a negative effect on the wearers and cause heat stress, hence the drive to reduce the weight of current garments.Removing the thermal barrier from the PPE and fitting alternative light weight products achieves this but if you withdraw the very components that are there to give the fire fighters the highest levels of protection, then in my opinion, the wearer no longer has the levels of protection they may need. I have read many reports where physiological evaluations have been carried out and my own fire and rescue carried out heat stress testing many years ago using rectal thermometers. The results showed that even though the fire fighters were working hard and were exposed to high levels of heat, there was no evidence that the garments had any effect on them or caused them physiological problems. I'm probably in the minority with how I see this, but I have spoken to many scientists who have carried out independent studies on this subject and they were in agreement. I worry that we are compromising firefighters protection to try and solve a problem that doesn't exist.

Time will tell whether my thoughts are right or wrong.