Turnout gear presents manufacturers with an interesting conundrum. The protective clothing’s main job is to shield firefighters from the very fire they’re fighting. But this gear also must protect in a way that “prevents the No. 1 killer of firefighters, which is heat stress, while safeguarding them from the No. 1 disease, which is cancer,” says Deana Stankowski, the senior offering manager for first responder gear at Honeywell.
It’s a scenario without easy answers. Most turnout gear worn by firefighters contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—a toxic class of chemicals used to meet water-resistant uniform standards. But studies link PFAS chemicals to a variety of health problems, including cancer, even at low doses.
The latest turnout gear innovations are changing the tide. PFAS-free materials, such as fibers from DuPont, do not use short- or long-chain PFAS in the aramid spinning process. Honeywell now offers PFAS-free outer shell options. And Fire-Dex, a family-owned global PPE manufacturer, has announced TECGEN71+ and TECGEN51+ PPE fabrics with a PFAS-free water-repellent finish.
“We partnered with Milliken to develop a non-fluorinated version of our exclusive materials utilizing innovative technology to create an eco-friendly, water-resistant formula that meets the increasing market demand for PFAS-free PPE material options,” stated Todd Herring, vice president of Product Innovation and Strategy at Fire-Dex, in a press release.
Turnout gear comprises three layers: a thermal layer that sits next to the skin, a moisture barrier, and an outer shell. Traditionally companies use water-resistant materials made with PFAS for the moisture barrier and outer shell.
Honeywell and Fire-Dex are among manufacturers eyeing fabric innovations to deliver PFAS-free outer shells. “We are making sure that we have every PFAS-free outer shell available in the market as part of our portfolio,” Stankowski says. “We have customers field testing PFAS-free outer shells, and we will eventually transition over completely to PFAS free. There’s no reason to offer both options.”
PFAS-free fabric comes with a few minor tradeoffs, Stankowski admits. The fabric loses some water and oil repellency, meaning it absorbs slightly more of both than its PFAS-containing counterparts. But PFAS-free fabrics still meet NFPA 1971 standards.
“Any minor tradeoffs with PFAS-free fabrics are outweighed by worker safety. And the protection level is unchanged. PFAS-free gear offers the same thermal protection and moves the same way,” Stankowski says. “The color fastness and wear remain the same.”
TURN OFF THE HEAT
Fire-Dex designs its TECGEN71+ NFPA 1971 outer shell to lessen heat stress by reducing weight and increasing flexibility. Turnouts crafted with TECGEN71+ are light, thin, and breathable. Honeywell strives for similar characteristics in its turnout gear.
“Cancer is the No. 1 disease that kills firefighters, but heat stress is the No. 1 killer,” Stankowski says. “Anything we can do to reduce heat stress at a fire event and help firefighters cool down faster as they exit the fire is incredibly important. We push our suppliers to see how lightweight they can get while keeping durability and protection high.”
Nomex® Nano and Nomex® Nano Flex are the next generation of flame-resistant (FR) solutions from DuPont. These FR materials offer exceptional particulate blocking, enhanced thermal protection, and greater comfort. Manufacturers use these materials in thermal liners and hoods, and they exceed NFPA 1971 performance requirements. “Dupont engineers Nomex® Nano to be thinner than other advanced FR materials, providing relief from heat stress and increased mobility,” says Taylor Duhé, marketing communications lead for Emergency Response (Global) and for DuPont Personal Protection in North America.
Duhé says Nomex® Nano provides up to a 40% reduction in thermal liner thickness compared to other advanced liners available today—while providing similar thermal protection performance (TPP). The breathable, FR material also offers exceptional elasticity and superior particle barrier performance. Further, thermal liners made with Nomex® Nano can help reduce the weight and bulk of turnout gear, increasing mobility and reducing fatigue, disorientation, and heat exhaustion.
These thermal liners also offer enhanced moisture management that wicks away sweat to keep skin dry and reduce heat stress. The liners also store less water and dry quickly. In laboratory tests comparing moisture absorption, thermal liners made of Nomex® Nano offered 30% more absorption than conventional thermal liners—with equivalent drying rates.
“Gear should also prevent heat penetration to allow firefighters enough time to escape from an emergency while also managing the risks of heat stress, which is another major cause of firefighter death. With its higher air permeability, Nomex® helps reduce heat stress,” Duhé says.
Honeywell Morning Pride’s Gear Shield puts added protection at wrists, around the core, and at the bottom of pants to close them off. The design keeps carcinogenic particulates from entering the pants and outer shell. But as the gear keeps out carcinogens, it also holds in heat. The company solved this problem with the Heat Release Liner, which brings up cooler air from the bottom and pushes it out the top as firefighters release their SCBA. “It gives them a much faster cool down as they come out of a fire,” Stankowski says.
KEEP ‘EM MOVING
“Firefighter gear must stand up to multiple hazards while also helping firefighters get the job done with the least amount of heat stress and without impeding movement or situational awareness,” Duhé says.
Duhé reports an industry-wide trend in light weighting gear for improved firefighter mobility to combat fatigue and heat stress, which can have serious consequences. Increased attention to comfort helps firefighters move easily.
Honeywell has owned the Morning Pride brand for over a decade. This turnout gear company’s claim to fame is the innovation that shortened the coat while keeping a longer tail in the back. “Firefighters get full coverage, but without the bulkiness in the front,” Stankowski says. “Morning Pride invented and patented the tail, but other manufacturers now design their coats like this because it’s a great way to provide comfort while meeting the needs for movement.”
The company continues its spirit of innovation with an R&D team of pattern designers who are always looking for the next design improvement. Their years of experience helps pattern makers understand what firefighters want and need.
“We spend as much time as possible with end users to learn how they use gear, how they feel about it, what they need, and what they feel is missing,” Stankowski says. “This helps us develop new technologies and push our suppliers to do the same.”
Gear manufacturers pay close attention to ergonomics, i.e., how a body moves, as they design their products. “Twenty years ago, coats came down to your knees, and were long, bulky, and hard to move in. Now they only cover the two inches of overlap with your pant when your arms are in the air,” she says. “Standards require us to keep that overlap.”
By paying attention to the gear worn in extreme sports, like snowboarding and mountain climbing, manufacturers started putting panels in turnout gear to improve moveability. “Turnout gear today moves differently. It feels more like sportswear than turnout gear,” Stankowski says.
Looking at extreme sports as well as how firefighters move has helped Honeywell develop innovations like Forward Flex Sleeves, a patented design that eliminates undesirable sleeve retraction when wearers reach up or forward. The company’s lower-ride pant prevents bunching around the waist and offers a Full Range of Motion Crotch Patented U-shaped design and diamond-shaped insert for greater leg mobility. “When they are on their knees, crawling from knee to knee, they don’t get a lot of retraction,” she says. “Plus, they get some ease of movement and the pant doesn’t bunch up under their legs so they can move more freely.”
Fire-Dex also customizes its turnout gear and offers a range of features. Its FXR firefighter turnouts offer Active Posture Design™ (APD) to achieve the perfect fit and maximum flexibility. The company engineered APD with rock climbing and extreme sports clothing designers to develop elements that minimize firefighter stress and fatigue.
Its FXR and FXM turnouts boast a slim, comfortable fit and offer features like deep sleeve water wells to provide a natural glove/sleeve interface that keeps water out. Added pleats curve the sleeve to the wearer’s arms natural bent position without restricting movement. DexFlex Knees lets the wearer crawl, climb, and kneel freely with comfortable, pre-bent legs that increase natural movement. The OmniDex Shoulder eliminates coat rise and sleeve retraction by moving the shoulder seam to its natural bending point, and a comfort inseam reduces bulk and wear and tear with an innovative seamless gusset.
FOCUS ON FIT
Jim Burneka, a firefighter in Dayton, Ohio, who also runs Firefighter Cancer Consultants, advises departments to equip every firefighter with two sets of fitted gear. “If you are wearing gear that’s not fitted to you, your exposure [to cancer causing carcinogens] is greater. Fitted gear reduces your exposure,” he says.
Turnout gear manufacturers take this advice seriously. Both Fire-DEX and Honeywell offer custom sizing. “We take several measurements to size products down to half-inch increments,” Stankowski says. “For instance, sleeve lengths can be within a half inch.”
Stankowski stresses fit contributes to how well firefighters move. “If it’s too big or too small, it makes it hard to move,” she says. “If the gear gaps or doesn’t offer enough ease, it can lessen protection. Custom sizing is important, and we make each garment specific to the firefighter.”
Companies take around 45 days to fill an order after sizing has taken place.
HEAD TO TOE COVERAGE
Manufacturers look to increase particulate protection in hoods. Stankowski explains, “The skin on the neck is very thin and prone to absorbing carcinogenic particulates. A hood that can protect everything from the top of the head down to the neck is important. Almost everyone is switching over to particulate protection hoods.”
Many available hoods rely on Dupont’s Nomex® Nano Flex. Adding this material to a firefighter hood composite structure provides improved particle barrier protection in the neckline and upper jaw area. “In fact, Nomex® Nano Flex results in up to a 4X increase in particle barrier efficiency,” reports Duhé. “Combining Nomex® Nano Flex and an FR knit material in a firefighter hood results in a 25% improvement in TPP compared to an FR knit material alone.”
Boots meanwhile remain a mainstay with few changes, other than the move to waterproof leather versus rubber. Honeywell still offers rubber boots for departments with limited budgets, but like most turnout gear companies, their boot offerings are mostly leather. “The protection is similar, but leather looks and feels better,” Stankowski says.
Turnout gear manufacturers and fabric companies are on a continual quest to innovate. What’s innovative today may not be tomorrow. But as of today, PFAS-free materials lead the innovations for turnout gear while ever-lightweight and flexible designs improve moveability and offer better protection as firefighters do their jobs.