Good firefighter PPE offers excellent protection from heat, flame, flashovers, particulates, water ingress and blood-borne pathogens, but how is it made and how can fire services ensure it remains fit for purpose throughout its lifetime? MSA Bristol has a proven track record of designing, manufacturing and maintaining high-performance firefighter PPE.
Firefighting is a dangerous and hazardous occupation. Reassuringly though, firefighter injuries are on a downward trend. For example, in 2019–20 there were 7% fewer firefighter injuries obtained during operational incidents, training or routine activities than the previous year.1 This partly reflects the reduced number of incidents attended but also improvements made to safety equipment and PPE design.
Firefighters have to put a lot of trust in their PPE. The good news is that, long before they have even put it on, specialist designers have spent hundreds of hours creating a PPE design that is not only protective but also comfortable and lightweight.
Research and development take months. We look at the latest developments in the industry and beyond, seek input from customers and international distributors, and look at the latest fibres and fabrics on the market. It’s a collaborative process and informs the innovative designs you see on the market today. Design and fabric selection is only the beginning though.
Manufacturing is also key to quality and long-lasting PPE. The process can be broken down into distinct stages: lay planning, cutting, sewing and labelling.
A garment is made up of hundreds of individual pieces of cut fabric that are expertly sewn together by trained machinists. Before they are cut using state-of-the-art machinery, every fabric piece is efficiently arranged on a ‘lay plan’ so that when they are cut there is minimal fabric wastage – it looks like a big jigsaw puzzle! There are computer packages that can do this for us but often a trained operator can create a more efficient lay plan.
Following its creation, a lay plan is sent to specialist cutting-machine operators who are based in our Central Cutting Unit in north Bristol. They programme the cutting machines, cut the fabric and sort the fabric pieces ready for the sewing machinists.
These fabric pieces are then sewn together, labelled and given a unique barcode, which enables us and the customer to access manufacturing and aftercare information at a click of a button.
At MSA Bristol, we are ISO 9001 accredited. We also strictly adhere to the conformity assessment procedure of Regulation (EU) 2016/425 and post Brexit, the UKCA (UK Conformity Assessed) marking regulation. This means our garments are quality monitored throughout the production process, and on completion, to ensure there are no flaws or imperfections and the garments are fit for purpose.
Our quality monitoring system is supervised and approved by the British Standards Institute (BSI), which carries out ongoing surveillance visits twice a year. All our PPE bears the CE2797 certification mark, or if being sold in the UK the UKCA AB0086 mark, proving our PPE has been certified, complies with UK and European regulations, and can be lawfully sold in the UK, EU and beyond.
Finished garments ultimately end up at our International Distribution Centre in Bristol, where they are packaged up ready for onward distribution to our customers. This is where you might think our involvement ends, but it doesn’t stop there!
Here in the UK, the industry takes cleaning and maintenance of kit very seriously, and the vast majority of UK fire and rescue services (FRSs) also take up professional managed services provision as part of their PPE contract.
Fully Managed Services packages have been available in the UK for many years, offering the gold standard in care and maintenance throughout the lifetime of a garment, and ensuring it always remains fit for purpose. As well as regular cleaning and decontamination, kit is thoroughly inspected for signs of damage or wear and is swiftly repaired, often by the original manufacturer. This kind of service has obvious advantages over cleaning at the station or at home. Technical expertise ensures that original performance specifications are maintained, and that contaminated kit is dealt with by professionals in a suitable environment. Recent years have seen a significant increase in take up of Fully Managed Services packages in the UK, partly due to convenience and competitive pricing, but also partly due to health concerns.
At MSA Bristol, we offer in-house Managed Services operations out of our two dedicated Service Centres in Rainham in Greater London, and Staple Hill in Bristol. Both centres now handle up to 5,500 items of PPE every week and we are in the process of expanding our operations with a new service centre set to open in Scotland.
Our service includes collection, cleaning, decontamination, inspection, maintenance, garment tracking, delivery, stock support and online ordering via a Wardrobe Management System, in a continuous cycle:
- MSA Bristol delivery drivers collect soiled or damaged kit from FRSs around the country in a fleet of liveried vans.
- The garments are transported to one of our two in-house service centres where they are professionally washed and dried.
- Contaminated PPE which has been exposed to toxic or hazardous materials is cleaned in a specially controlled environment.
- Each garment is thoroughly inspected, and any imperfections or damage repaired by our team of skilled sewing machinists.
- The garments are checked again, and if they pass the inspection, and are fully fit for purpose, they are returned to the customer.
- A service history log is completed for each item of PPE, recording all cleaning, repairs, decontamination and inspections. Unique bar codes enable the tracking of each item’s life-journey including the date of manufacture, and the specific rolls of fabric that were used to create it.
- Collection to delivery is undertaken within a guaranteed seven days.
Most FRSs have two sets of clothing and therefore can use this service to ensure thorough cleaning. It’s not always possible, however, to use the service for helmets and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) because most firefighters only have one helmet or share SCBA, and this vital equipment cannot be sent off-site for cleaning in case a major incident occurs.
As a result, many FRSs clean helmets and SCBA in the fire station by hand, which is a difficult, lengthy process and can expose the firefighter undertaking the cleaning to further risk of contamination.
MSA Bristol’s Solo Rescue decontamination machine cleans boots, helmets, gloves and SCBA in a self-contained, sealed compartment, which minimises manual contact with contaminated material. Kit can be cleaned immediately upon return to the fire station, with the machine successfully removing residues of combustion gases, soot particles and toxins in just a few minutes, and fits in a compact space of less than 1m2.
The durable stainless-steel machines have a swift cleaning cycle, meaning that up to 14 sets of SCBA can be decontaminated in just one hour, considerably improving the speed and efficiency of the cleaning process. Solo Rescue decontamination machines are also simple to operate, with minimal servicing required.
At every stage in the design, manufacturing and servicing process, we do all we can to protect firefighters on the front line from both immediate and long-term dangers, so that they can confidently focus on the job in hand. A great deal happens behind the scenes to ensure that firefighter PPE is fit for purpose and remains so throughout its lifetime.
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1. Taken from Fire and rescue workforce and pensions statistics: England, April 2019 to March 2020