The next 10 years of product development may depend as much on our approach to firefighting as it does technological advances
By Rick Markley
There was a time not all that long ago when firefighting helmets, boots and gloves were little more than ancillary items. In fact, personal protective equipment expert Karen Lehtonen says they were seen as “accessories.”
“I get mad when someone in our organization calls them accessories. An accessory to me is something you don’t need. You try to fight a fire without those things; they are not accessories.” Lehtonen says. Lehtonen is Lion’s vice president of innovation and product management and tested PPE before that. All told, she has more than 25 years studying, testing and developing firefighter protective gear.
She says there was a dramatic attitude shift regarding these items sometime in the late 1990s — it was a shift away from accessories toward necessities. Since then gloves, boots and helmets have improved, albeit at a slower pace than with pant and coat developments. Take, for example, firefighting boots. What once looked to be designed with fly fishing in mind now more closely mirrors footwear for athletic competition.
When trying to predict the future development of an item — such as boots, gloves or helmets — understanding the market’s prevailing attitude toward it is good starting point.
And in North America one of the driving forces behind market attitude and, ultimately, product offerings are the standards issued by the National Fire Protection Association. NFPA committees draft, revise and vote on firefighting equipment and training requirement standards. The committees are made up of firefighters, equipment manufacturers, relevant association and agency representatives and other subject experts.
While the standards have no regulatory backing of themselves, as say a mandate from the federal government would, most standards are adhered to by fire equipment manufacturers in North America and by most municipalities overseeing fire departments.
The standards are evaluated and revised every five years. NFPA 1971, which covers firefighter boots, helmets and gloves, is set to have its 2018 reversion voted on this August.
Lehtonen and other experts say not to expect anything more than subtle changes to boots, gloves and helmets in the next NFPA 1971.
“Changes in the standard were rather lackluster in terms of driving innovations for firefighter protective ensemble elements, including boots, gloves and helmets,” says Jeffrey Stull. Like Lehtonen, Stull serves on the NFPA 1971 committee. Stull, along with his wife, Grace, operate International Personal Protection Inc. and authored the book, “PPE Made Easy.” “Until standards open up to incentivize innovative product technology, significant changes in these products may be hampered.”
Robert Freese, Globe’s senior vice president of marketing, knows a bit about the evolution of firefighting PPE — his great grandfather is credited with inventing the first set of PPE in 1887. He says NFPA is cautious, conservative body that requires proof before enacting changes. He expects a lot of business as usual regarding short-term development.
“If you look inside the NFPA standards, there’s an attempt to not be design restrictive, because that stifles modernization and change,” Freese says. “But there’s also a conservativism that we don’t want to allow any product on the marketplace that could possibly jeopardize firefighter health and safety. That’s the balance: you want to corral all of the bad stuff, and in doing so you stifle some of the movement of the good stuff.”
Lehtonen agrees that the NFPA rulemaking process is both blessing and curse.
“It can either hinder you because of resistance to change or NFPA can be a change driver,” Lehtonen says. “It can be a blessing and a hindrance all rolled into one.”
One example of recent change that firefighters and departments pushed and NFPA was a change agent for are NFPA-approved hoods that act as a barrier to cancer-causing particulate matter. This came on the heels of growing evidence linking firefighting activities to cancers and to recent studies showing the firefighter’s head, throat and neck are especially susceptible to those particulates from fire combustion.
And it is that area of particulate protection where we could see the most development in firefighting boots, gloves and helmets when the 2023 version of NFPA 1971 is compiled.
“Protection from particulates could end up being a major theme of the next [NFPA 1971] edition, and not just hoods,” says Mark Williams, a 20-year glove product specialist for Gore. Gore makes barrier linings found in many firefighter boot and glove models. When researchers looked at particulate matter on the skin near the hood, they found that when subjects removed their gloves they had a lot of particulates on their hands, he says.
One area Lehtonen says that may get a closer look is where the glove meets the coat cuff, the boot meets the pant cuff and the helmet meets the collar. This interface area has drawn attention from coat and pant makers and that attention may turn to the boot, glove and helmet side of the interface.
It may not be manufacturers’ number-one priority, but it will be up there, she says. One of the challenges will be making interfaces that work equally well across product lines.
“I’d like to say it works best with a Lion boot, glove or helmet, but you can’t be that selfish when it comes to the health and safety of firefighters,” Lehtonen says. “If I make an interface that works better with a glove to reduce contaminants, and it doesn’t matter what glove you are wearing, you’ve helped solve someone’s problem — and that’s what’s most important.”
Stull has also long been a proponent of manufacturers adopting a full-ensemble approach to firefighter PPE.
“One of the big gaps in the overall personal protective equipment for firefighters is the lack of an ensemble approach,” Stull says. “Items of the ensemble including garments, helmets, hoods, gloves and footwear are sold separately, and it is up to the individual fire departments to judiciously select and integrate these items for effective protection. Levels of protection among the different elements are not commensurate, and thus there can be gaps in protection or ineffective interfaces.”
Additionally, experts believe this focus on cancer-causing agents will lead to greater emphasis on cleaning PPE. And that is likely to play a role in the evolution of boots, gloves and helmets.
“What about making product that is more cleanable or easy to be decontaminated? You’re going to see a lot of focus and development in that area,” Lehtonen says. “You can’t say a piece of clothing is going to prevent you from getting cancer, but … every little thing you do can lead to a reduction of occupational illnesses.”
Stull agrees that a sharp focus will be on cleaning and decontaminating gloves, boots and helmets. “This may require rethinking of some aspects of the clothing, because repeated laundering of gear is likely to cause shorter lifespans,” he says.
Like the glove, the helmet has long avoided being caught in the PPE cleaning crosshairs. And that may change with the next generation of helmets, the experts say.
“You start to hear people ask if they should take their headband out and clean it,” Lehtonen says. “You never heard anybody talking about taking their headband out before. There are guys on the NFPA committee where, right around where their headband was, had cancerous cells removed. Is it the headband? We don’t know.”
For firefighting gloves, product engineers have and will continue to fight the dexterity versus insulation battle. The more thermal protection of glove offers, the less mobility it gives users and vice versa. PPE experts expect we will see incremental improvements in glove dexterity over the coming 10 years.
“We can get there a lot easier with some of the materials that are available and using the gloves that are 3-D designed with more pieces versus just a front and a back and still maintaining the same thermal protection,” Lehtonen says. “We’ll easily be there with in the next five to 10 years.”
Freese says a hybrid or layered system approach may be the best course for providing protection and dexterity in gloves. He points to the military and its adoption of high-protection gloves worn over high-dexterity gloves in aircraft firefighting. When less protection and more dexterity is needed, the outer glove is removed.
“Some of the European gloves are much more flexible than the U.S. gloves; I think they are heading in the right direction,” Freese says. “We’re still steeped in the notion that it is a firefighting glove and its primary function is to protect the hand against heat.
“Maybe there are different gloves or layering systems to gloves because we can’t do parts of the job in terms of operating extrication tools and that sort of thing as well as we should with a structural firefighting glove. And yet, it is the structural firefighting gear — boots, gloves, helmets — that we revert to as our universal service model.”
Certainly one practical problem with a layered-glove concept would be enforcement. That is, making sure firefighters are wearing the right glove for the right job.
When it comes to barrier technology, Williams says he doesn’t anticipate much change over the next 10 years. There just isn’t much room to improve upon the existing product, he says. “How do you make an insulation material that’s there when you need it and not when you don’t? That violates the laws of physics. Manufacturers are not holding back,” he says.
Stull says it will take a manufacturing breakthrough to realize a major change in firefighting gloves.
“The only way that gloves could be radically improved would be the introduction of a completely different moisture barrier system as part of the glove construction,” he says. “Current flat-film barrier technology simply results in bulky gloves because glove moisture barriers and liners do not readily integrate with the leather or fabric shells.”
When it comes to boots, the experts agree that the big challenge is removing weight without compromising protection. That’s important as a recent study showed that heavier firefighting boots changed how firefighters walked and increased their incidents of injury.
“We’re looking at protection from outside and comfort from inside,” says Jon Buchwald, Gore’s footwear product specialist. “From the inside, we look at moisture management, looking at improving breathability. There’s not much we can do to reduce weight of boot.”
Substituting lighter composite material for steel to provide puncture and crush protection is an encouraging development in the quest to remove weight from boots, Lehtonen says.
“With boots, the leather is a good, durable product. I think lighter and flexible boots will keep evolving incrementally,” she says. “I don’t know if you are going to see one big trigger pulled and all of a sudden one day it is this and the next day it is that.”
The experts do agree that leather is vastly superior to rubber and long for the day when the rubber firefighting boot is only seen in museums. “I’d like to see [rubber boots] go away,” Lehtonen says.
But to get there, manufacturers will have to overcome the perception of cost. And getting fire departments to buy a more expensive boot comes down to convincing them to look at cost of ownership versus cost of purchase.
“Cost is a big issue. This is not in a vacuum,” Freese says. “Who ever thought I’d pay $800 for a cell phone, yet I do because of everything it can do.”
But the real 800-pound gorilla in the U.S. fire service room is the helmet. The tall crown and wide brim are as recognizable and iconic as the cowboy hat and as beloved as apple pie.
And yet …
“The traditional helmet is going to take a long time to die,” Freese says. “People will crucify me for saying this, but it really isn’t the best design for what we encounter today.”
Not only that, experts say that iconic, traditional design is hindering helmet advances. How face and eye protection is better integrated into the European-style helmet is just one example.
“Overcoming the iconic look of the U. S. fire helmet will still be a difficult challenge those manufacturers that attempt to combine new features as part of the helmet,” Stull says. “The opportunity for changes in helmets comes with the integration of other features not typically applied in helmets. For example, certain types of electronics including sensors may be better suited on the helmet than the SCBA. Traditional style helmets, particularly those based on leather, remain an inefficient design.”
“There’s not a lot you can do until firefighters are ready to accept change in a different look,” Lehtonen says. “That’s how you are going to get different and better protection. I’d love to say we’ll be there in 10 to 15 years, but I’m not sure we will be.”
In the end, whether it is the cost of boots, the look of a helmet or the fear of getting cancer, firefighter attitude will drive changes to PPE.
“Things don’t change without the perception of crisis,” Freese says.
In fact, at Gore, both Williams and Buchwald say the problems that keep them awake at night are not engineering or material development problems — they are communication problems. For example, some firefighters are still using rubber boots, Buchwald says, despite the performance and safety benefits and lower cost for ownership of leather boots. “Breaking that paradigm is more of a marketing challenge than a tech challenge,” he says.
For Freese, the attitudes that will drive PPE development spring from how firefighters set out to do their job. That means looking at the expanded activities firefighters must do and how PPE helps or hinders those roles. It also means taking a hard look at the approach to fighting fires. And many think that moving from a universal, most-hazard standard model to one where levels of protection can be selected based on local risk and needs assessments could drive PPE development.
“We’re in the incipient stages of knowing about those kinds of exposures (carcinogens from particles and smoke),” Freese says. “Product will have a piece to play in limiting the exposures. But, it is going to be tactical, procedures and guidelines and our approach to extinguishing the fire.
“We don’t really need to put firefighters in the smoke and up close. The fire doesn’t really care if you are squirting water on it from 4 feet away or if you are squirting water on it through a window or a doorway.”
And how those major attitude shifts play out will have a direct influence on what our next generation of boots, gloves and helmets can and cannot do.
This article was originally published by Hemming Fire.