Safety & Health

Guideline for PPE Alterations

Issue 3 and Volume 6.

When you purchase a house, you expect it to include certain essentials: a roof that doesn’t leak, HVAC that’s in good condition, a clear title and hopefully a safe neighborhood for your family. But you make it yours when you decorate and paint it in whatever color you want (correction: whatever color and style your spouse tells you to use).

Firefighters are no different when it comes to their gear, tools and PPE. We’re proud of the gear we choose to use. If you want to prove this theory, try telling any department that your gear is better than theirs.

But no matter the department, there’s one common denominator when it comes to our PPE and gear: They must be safe. Our PPE ensemble is often the target of personalization based on a department’s needs or culture, but changing PPE in any way poses a potential safety risk. With a little forethought and communication, personalization can be done safely and properly.

The Chance for Change
PPE is not like a house. Once we purchase it and it’s been shipped to the firehouse, we can’t make any changes. So our opportunities to make changes are limited to the four examples below:
When the current contract is about to expire and you’re looking to negotiate a new contract. However, the purchasing process varies from department to department and is often influenced by department politics. Make sure all parties involved are prepared to support your intended changes.

  1. When there’s a change in another part of your ensemble that would affect its overall balance or functionality. Your entire ensemble should have a balance between thermal protective performance (TPP) and total heat loss (THL). Having a set of turnouts with a high TPP does you little good if your hood and facemask cannot handle similar thermal conditions. If you pick a style of gloves with a high TPP, does it adversely affect your dexterity? It’s best to test the entire ensemble as it will be worn rather than testing individual parts. That way, you avoid unseen pitfalls.
  2. When there has been a series of safety problems or concerns that warrants an immediate change.
  3. When there is a new technology available not found in your current ensemble.

Regardless of your reasons, any changes must adhere to NFPA 1971: Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting guidelines.

What to Consider
Before making any changes to your PPE, you must ask yourself three important questions:

  1. Do all parties involved in the decision-making process agree that a change needs to be
  2. Have I checked with the manufacturer to see if my desired change meets NFPA 1971 guidelines and can be accomplished by the manufacturer? In most cases, manufacturers are more than willing to work with you to make the product changes that you want.
  3. Do you have “models” to test your changes? Many times, what seems optimal on paper doesn’t translate into a functional model.

PPE Accessories
We can customize turnouts in a lot of ways. One of the most obvious is the outer-shell color, which comes down to personal preference and local tradition. For other PPE accessories, most firefighters prefer a “CAMS-style” ensemble—one designed to “carry all my stuff.” But there’s more to it than that. Let’s take a closer look at some of the other accessories we can change.

Pockets
When deciding on pockets, you must consider:

  1. Placement
  2.  Size (three-dimensional)
  3. 3. Material
  4. Number

To ease your decision-making, don your SCBA with your current turnouts to see what area is restricted by the SCBA. Waist straps should not interfere with the closures or limit access. Tip: Remain in contact with the SCBA manufacturer to see if any changes on their end are about to hit the market, such as a new harness, different straps or configuration changes.

Width, height and depth of pockets can all be specified, so ask yourself, how many tools do I really want to carry? Pockets must be big enough to store your current model glove, but remember: Bigger isn’t always better. A bellowed pocket can be any depth, but with big, bellowed pockets, you create a wider footprint of yourself, which increases the chances for your ensemble to get snagged on something. You may also increase the weight of the overall garment if you plan on shoving a lot of stuff into a larger pocket. But keep in mind that even before you load the pockets with tools, every extra bit of material adds weight to the ensemble, and there are no current seam strength requirements for pockets in turnouts; rivets or bar tacks are also not required.

If you definitely plan on carrying a lot of tools, there are tool pocket inserts and after-market options that help lengthen pocket lifespan. Some pockets are also reinforced with Kevlar, which will also lengthen pocket lifespan.

When looking at radio pockets on the jacket, SCBA straps are a major consideration, so you may have to go with an angled pocket. Mic tabs are also useless if they’re covered by your SCBA strap. And since we tend to put extra strain on anything that carries something else, ask or specify how the tabs are attached (bar tacks).

Knee, Elbow & Cuff Protection
Good knee protection is invaluable. Silicone, foam padding and leather are all options for these areas. The kneepads’ ability to withstand compression, heat and moisture is crucial, but remember: The thicker you design the kneepads and elbows, the heavier and more cumbersome you’ll make the pants. A thicker kneepad may also prevent easy “roll-down.”

Cuff reinforcement may be attained through leather, a double-layer outer shell or other materials.

Patches & Stickers
Patches and stickers are just that, right? True, they aren’t large or heavy items, but like everything else, they too must meet 1971 guidelines. Embroidery must be done with flame-resistant, melt-resistant material. Glue-on patches aren’t acceptable, as the glue can melt and cause degradation of the underlying outer-shell material, posing significant risk to the wearer.

Furthermore, patches, like trim, can entrap heat, causing thermal insult with no visible deterioration of the ensemble. One exception to this would be a patch embroidered on Nomex-only colored thread.

Harnesses & Belts
Class II harnesses and belts are often built into the garment, but each manufacturer builds them a little differently, so there are a few considerations when looking into a harness and belt system, such as how are they stored? If the harness straps are exposed to the bay floor and oil/grease, the straps and overall performance of the garment could degrade. Secondly, what clasp configuration and strap thickness are being considered? These decisions will determine how much weight you add.

If you’re considering a harness for fall protection, it must be certified under NFPA 1983: Standard on Life Safety Rope and Equipment for Emergency Services guidelines, but the bottom line is still the overall integrity of the pant in regard to water penetration, heat and flame resistance, and conformity to NFPA standards. Fall protection or not, it’s still a firefighting ensemble.

D-Rings & Other Small Things
The location and style of D-rings and attachment points can be chosen by your department, but SCBA space limitations will again play into your decision. D-rings weigh just ounces, but ounces can add up to pounds.

When choosing your accessories and their location, remember the small things, like trim, and if its location interferes with your movement. Can the trim be moved or relocated? Your manufacturer can assist you in answering that question.

When looking at the number of variables involved, it’s easy to see why a healthy relationship with the manufacturer is essential.

Things to Remember
Turnout customization is important, but we have limited parameters in which to work when doing so. Remember: There’s a crucial balance we must strike between weight, function and end-user comfort—but none of it can be achieved properly without a focus on safety. The balance between TPP and THL should be based on your own department’s needs.

Also keep in mind that upgrades, changes and additions all cost money. So before beginning a spec or design, list your department’s concerns and essential needs. Then list your wants. That way, you won’t blow your budget on things that might not help you in an emergency situation.

Just like our homes, firefighters take pride in their PPE. It says a lot about who they are and the job they do. So as long as manufacturers continue to seek out and implement lighter, more advanced materials and ergonomic designs, we will continue to test their limitations and design.