Sponsored by TenCate Protective Fabrics
By Courtney Levin, FireRescue1 BrandFocus Staff
Technology often takes center stage when talking about advancements within the fire service. From apps that streamline inventory management to tools that improve fire crew safety, software and hardware are in the limelight, leaving some forgetting just how far turnout gear has come.
If you ask anyone who has been in the fire service for several decades or more what turnout gear used to be like, they’ll be quick to regale you with stories about how hot, heavy and inflexible it was. Thankfully for today’s fire crews, innovations in these garments are plentiful, providing increased levels of ergonomics while addressing issues like heat stress and thermal protection.
Every manufacturer has their own approach to improvement, explains Jeff Sedivec, a veteran firefighter and mid-channel business development, emergency response at TenCate Protective Fabrics.
“They have their own theories, patterns and designs and they went from a really bulky, simple cut to something more streamlined and ergonomic,” he said. “They’ve made it easier for the gear to work with you and not against you.”
While the cut of turnout gear plays a large role in its overall level of comfort, the materials used have made the most impact when it comes to significant improvements. In the early to mid-2010s, turnout gear manufacturers realized that switching from a plain weave material, which tends to be somewhat rigid, to a twill weave helped make garments more flexible and comfortable.
GOING ABOVE AND BEYOND
Once plain weave was regularly used by TenCate Protective Fabrics, the company continued to advance the sophistication of each of its turnout gear options. They began by introducing Coolderm technology, which is built into the material fibers themselves. This innovation helps increase breathability and manages moisture.
“We put Coolderm technology into all of our thermal liner products,” said Sedivec. “We went as far as to put it into stationwear, too. It’s inherently a fire-resistant base layer – next-to-skin fabrics like that that perform just like athletic wear but they all wick moisture from the skin.”
Some years later, TenCate Protective Fabrics made even greater strides to incorporate more strength and flexibility into their garments through the development of Enforce technology.
“Enforce is a yarn that’s two times stronger than standard spun yarn,” Sedivec explained. “Back in the day, most outer shells used a plain weave with a ripstop that gives it that grid look. That raised grid area is an extra yarn. When you’re weaving, you stop every 15 times and put the extra yarn in two directions to give it strength and make it more flexible. With Enforce, we’re inserting that extra yarn every three times instead of every 15.”
TenCate Protective Fabrics has since released turnout gear in various materials, including PBI Peak5 and their newest option, Flex7. Many of their products combine several innovative materials like Kevlar/Nomex and Titanium Nano to further help with moisture management, breathability and overall comfort.
WHICH GARMENT IS BEST?
Every department likely has its own turnout gear “wish list” but that doesn’t mean each innovation is met with open arms – at least not at first.
“I would say as a whole, the fire service tends to move more cautiously,” said Sedivec. “And there are a number of departments throughout the country that don’t have the resources or a dedicated person that can dig deep and do the research.
“That’s where we come in. Our job is to serve as subject matter experts – to come alongside firefighters so they can find the right solution based on their unique needs.”
It's impossible for any one firefighter to be an expert in every turnout gear option on the market, so research is key before investing in new garments. However, a wear test is really what helps crews differentiate what seems better on paper from what actually works best for them while in action.
“The idea is to take a look at what you’re using now and then look at what’s good, what’s bad, what do you like, what don’t you like and what are your problem areas,” suggested Sedivec. “By identifying what those wants and needs are, you can target some of these new innovations with a wear trial.”
Sedivec recommends fire crews perform a series of activities wearing their current turnout gear then repeat the process with the new gear they’re evaluating, performing the activities in the exact same way. This side-by-side comparison helps to validate if a gear change is a true improvement.
WHEN A WEAR TRIAL REALLY COUNTS
For some, investing in the same type of turnout gear time after time makes sense. After all, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, right? Unfortunately, this mindset prohibits departments from realizing better options for their crew. Those who do want to make a change and try something new may do so for a variety of reasons.
“There are so many reasons to perform a wear trial,” Sedivec said. “It could be because a department is looking for a lower cost of ownership or increased performance as far as durability. It could be that you’re having people sustain thermal injuries and you want to increase thermal protection. There are a range of performance issues to consider along with the initial cost of the gear.”
Though a department’s budget often dictates turnout gear investments, agencies can get creative during wear trials to find what’s right for them. Some might opt for a less protective outer shell, for example, while making sure they have the best thermal liner on the market. Sedivec says the process is akin to a moving target, involving elements of performance, initial investment and cost over time.
Instead of being overwhelmed by each new product as garments evolve, it’s best to take time to evaluate your department’s wants and needs so you can invest in the right gear for your crew.
“I can control tactics to keep firefighters from being caught near a flashover, but I can’t control the weather,” said Sedivec. “I can’t stop it from being 100 degrees with 88% humidity, but I can help address that with my turnout gear.”
Visit TenCate Protective Fabrics for more information.