Compared to the big players in the American personal protective clothing market, Denmark-based Viking Life-Saving Equipment has a small niche. However, that niche includes such prominent clients as Boston Fire Department and the Miami-Dade College Fire School.
“We’re relatively new to the market even though we have been used by these departments nearly 18 years,” said Ken Crouch, Viking’s fire segment manager.
However, it is Viking’s international ties that make it a conduit bringing European PPE innovations to American firefighters.
“We have some unique gear that other manufacturers don’t have here,” Crouch said.
From the UK, Hainsworth TITAN flame resistant fabric is a pillar of Vikings innovative reputation. The product is used in a breathable, comfortable outershell designed to minimize the effects of heat stress while being robust enough to withstand the rigors of firefighting.
“Titan is predominant as PPE fabric across Europe,” Crouch said. “The difference from American fire resistant fabric is American fabrics use a Teflon coating.
After only a few fires, that coating is worn away, he said.
“Then the outer shell begins to soak up water,” Crouch said. “The gear becomes heavier. That weight causes stress. The firefighters become more easily fatigued. Fighting against that weight and stress becomes a factor in heart attacks.”
Under European standards, water must not penetrate the outer shell, he said. This is to keep the weight of the garment as low as possible, reducing stress and fatigue to the firefighter. The Hainsworth Titan fabric is different in that it will withstand up to 60 washings before water will penetrate the outer shell.
In the U.S., standards for fire fighting gear allows the outer shell to become wet, using a membrane underneath to stop it from penetrating to the firefighter, he said.
“So we use a different fabric from the UK that no one else has in the U.S.,” he said. “It sets us apart.” Beside the European concern about physical stress for its firefighters, the EU standards address protecting firefighters from exposure to carcinogens. Viking joined a competition conducted by Gothenburg, Sweden, fire responders to come up with new designs for bunker gear to better address the problem.
“We designed the gear and gave it to them for a wear trial,” Crouch said. “We won the contract. We built them 650 set of gear from that initial design.” That design has since been adopted by other European fire departments.
Viking further enhanced the Gothenburg design before offering it in America, he said.
“What we sell in the U.S. is like the European gear on steroids,” Crouch said. “So for once we reversed the table and introduced something to the American market of even higher quality than the EU standard.”
As an alternative to the removable inner liner commonly used in the U.S., Viking gear offers a washable, removable outer shell.
“When you zip off the outer shell you are left wearing a comfortable Gore-Tex coat,” Crouch said. “If you’re dealing with a medical emergency or snow or rain, you are still protected.”
Before getting into the fire truck, the outer shell is placed in a dissolvable washing bag. In this way, particles on the outer surface can be removed from close contact, and are less likely to transfer to the firehouse. This reduces the risk of contamination during washing, storage and other routine tasks.
The prices for Viking PPE is competitive with PPE produced by American based manufacturers, Crouch said.
Unfortunately, innovation is often stymied by tradition in the fire service, he said.
“In my lifetime we have transitioned from rubber boots and bunker coats to having a full set of turnout gear, wearing bunker coats and pants,” Crouch said. “People resisted that because it was a major change.” The innovations offered by Viking are something that the fire service will slowly learn to accept, he said.
“We have to make this transition for the sake of life safety,” Crouch said.