Roger Startin, Joint Managing Director of Bristol Uniforms, looks at the importance of high-quality, well-fitting PPE and how to achieve the correct size and fit.
When it comes to good-quality PPE, the key elements for keeping firefighters safe are fabric, design and fit.
Good PPE starts with cutting-edge fabric. A select combination of fabrics can provide resistance to fire, increased breathability and control of moisture, and are lighter weight. Innovations from leading fibre and fabric manufacturers, such as WL Gore, Hainsworth, PBI Performance Products and DuPont, mean that PPE manufacturers can produce multi-layered garments that protect from the inside and out.
The design and style of a garment also plays a crucial role in firefighter safety. Whether operating in floods, on the roadside or in extremely cold conditions, firefighters need to maintain a comfortable body temperature and stay dry. They also need clothing that allows them to be physically active, whether crawling, running, climbing or carrying heavy equipment. Protective clothing must be ergonomic and work with them rather than hinder them.
However, many overlook the importance of size and fit when purchasing new kit. In fact, it is a vital element of effective PPE as it is the only way to assure optimal protective performance. The very best quality PPE could still put a firefighter at risk if it is not fitted correctly. PPE that is too big may be too heavy and result in excess material entangling in machinery. Kit that is too small or tight could compromise thermal protection by reducing air gaps.
Every firefighter is unique and wearer comfort and personal safety can only be achieved if garments are sized correctly and fit well. The key to this is accurate measuring from the outset and subsequent thorough checks to make sure the fit is correct.
As standard, we provide 28 different sizes for both male and female firefighters for most of our structural firefighting ranges, and we can also make bespoke sizes if necessary. Male and female designs are cut slightly differently as they tend to have different physiques. With a huge range of sizes to choose from, each firefighter can find the perfect fit.
We have a tried-and-tested sizing procedure to help ensure every firefighter gets a good fit. Depending on the requirements of the customer, we either send in our own specialist teams to undertake sizing, or train key firefighter personnel to measure their colleagues themselves.
A series of specific measurements are taken, and during the sizing process, firefighters try on sample kits to help us identify the best fit for their frame and size. We ask firefighters to complete a series of six exercises, which are a combination of stretching, bending, squatting and crawling. By doing these exercises, a firefighter can be sure that their PPE will fit properly.
Recently, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, we created a new socially distanced sizing protocol in the UK, which was vetted and authorised by Kent FRS, so that sizing procedures could go ahead as planned. Leicestershire FRS placed an order through the UK Collaborative PPE Framework in May and we began sizing in June. Rather than delay the start or risk mistakes with self-sizing, our sizing team created a circular mat, 4 metres in diameter with a red spot in the centre, which is laid out in fire stations. Each firefighter stands on the red dot with suitable sizes brought to the edge of the mat to try on, until the correct size is identified. Gloves and masks are worn during the process and PPE and helmets are sanitised in-between firefighters.
Robust sizing procedures are also offered by our international distributors, with some choosing to undertake the sizing themselves, and others sending specialist teams to measure each member of the crew.
Checking new kit
Every firefighter is monitored when they receive their kit for the first time. They must ensure they put it on correctly and that all elements of the ensemble, for example the coat, jacket, boots, gloves and hood, are compatible and fit together well. Instructions can be found in the PPE’s user manual, but advice is also provided.
It is vital that:
- the trouser leg overlaps the boot top,
- the helmet’s headband adjustment sits on top of the jacket collar without interfering with head movement,
- the hood fits well over shoulders with no interference to the coat fit,
- when donning the coat, the thumbs must be put through the loops that are stitched into the coat’s cuffings, and
- the coat’s cuffings sit inside the gloves.
Once PPE is on, firefighters are again asked to complete a series of exercises which highlight any areas of concern. Specialist sizing teams can be contacted to provide guidance if needed and if any item requires further adjustment, this can be done.
Clearly, there are many different factors that come together to ensure PPE is safe and provides adequate protection against a host of hazards faced by the modern-day firefighter. By purchasing quality PPE, made from cutting-edge fabrics, which is measured and fitted correctly, firefighters can be sure they are getting the very best protection.
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