All firefighter PPE must conform to a range of international and British standards, but how useful are the test results when choosing your firefighters’ kit? How can you be sure that you have created the right specification for your new firefighting PPE? And what are the elements to consider before making a decision on what to buy?

What standards must firefighting garments meet?

Firefighting clothing must meet a variety of international and British standards including:

• EN 469:2005 – minimum protection requirements for protective clothing for firefighters, measured as Level 1 (lower protection) and Level 2 (higher protection)

• EN 13911 – protective clothing and hoods for firefighters

• BS 8617:2019 – cleaning, maintenance and repair

There are additional standards for helmets, footwear, gloves, eye protection and a range of other firefighting PPE.

Each garment will be tested by an independent specialist laboratory and a test report issued. But as with many things, the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

What is firefighting kit tested for?

The four main areas of performance that firefighting clothing is tested for are:

• Heat protection rating

• Breathability rating

• Ergonomic rating

• Moisture vapour resistance rating

Firefighting suits are made up of layers – usually an outer layer, a moisture and particulate barrier and a thermal lining. Getting the right balance of all three so that the firefighting gear both offers protection and doesn’t hamper the wearer or put them at increased risk of exhaustion is the holy grail of kit design.

Clearly clothing made for tackling fires needs to be able to protect the wearer from heat – but what’s the Goldilocks standard? When does too much heat protection become a problem for other areas of performance?

An increased heat protection rating will increase the weight of the kit and how hot the wearer will get. This decreases the breathability rating. So where is the sweet-spot for the right level of heat protection which also gives your firefighters enough breathability?

The minimum standard for heat protection is 13 – do you need to specify a higher number if that means your team will tire more quickly and be hotter when working, putting them at increased risk of heat exhaustion?

The ergonomic rating tells you how easy it is to move around in the kit, but the assumption is that the easier it is to move around, the more compromises have been made on heat protection due to the materials available but with the right kit that doesn’t have to be the case. Again, it’s about finding the right balance between the protection offered and the practicalities of wear.

The moisture vapour resistance rating (also known as the RET rating) is a measure of how breathable the kit is. A lower number is better for this test.

The moisture barrier in firefighting turnout kits help protect against water, chemicals, and viral agents leaching through on to clothes and skin underneath. But they also need to allow moisture out of the kit to minimise the chances of firefighters suffering from steam burns.

How to decide on the right firefighting kit for you

With such a large number of variables for each individual piece of firefighting kit, the very best way to decide on what’s right for your brigade is to do some user acceptance testing. Once you’re satisfied the kit meets the minimum standards to keep your crews safe, testing the kit in the field and getting feedback from your team will help you make the right choice.

The kit you choose might depend on the types of incidents you predominantly respond to but should heavily take account of the views of your crews on what kit helps them work for longer or keeps them cooler.

Even kit with very similar testing results may operate differently when used in the field, so deciding on the right firefighting kit for your brigade cannot be a paper exercise. It needs to take account of the realities of what your crews are asked to do, and how the kit helps them do that job.

For advice on how useful tests are when choosing your firefighting kit – or on any aspect of firefighting PPE – give one of our friendly team a call today on +44 (0) 1332 341030.

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