Protective clothing – including apparel such as fire-resistant coats and chemical-resistant suits – serves as essential gear for fire fighters and other emergency responders, says NIOSH. These garments provide a critical barrier against heat and flames, toxic materials, and other hazards frequently encountered by fire fighters. Although the benefits of these ensembles have been documented, challenges and opportunities for further improvements remain.

For example, what can be done to alleviate or minimize physical stress and heat stress from fire fighters’ turnout ensembles – which weigh, on average, 48.5 pounds – without compromising the protection they offer against heat and flame exposure? Can scientists devise better benchmarks for assessing the performance of chemical-resistant suits against a variety of hazardous chemicals, and performance after repeated use?

NIOSH is addressing these and other challenges and opportunities through research at the NIOSH National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh. The studies reflect priorities that have been identified by fire fighters, fire departments, fire safety experts, equipment manufacturers, and other partners and stakeholders.

“In the inherently dangerous occupations of fire fighting and emergency response, protective ensembles are a critical part of good safety strategy,” said NIOSH Director John Howard, M.D. “NIOSH is proud to have a role in the partnerships that are moving the design, performance, and use of these ensembles into the 21st Century.”

Areas of NIOSH research include these:

Cool it! A “cooling suit” is a tight-fitting body suit worn under a fire fighter’s turnout gear. Water or air is circulated throughout the suit to cool the body and prevent heat stress – a serious occupational hazard in the hot, hectic physical activity of fire fighting. Some types of cooling suits cover most of the body, and others cover certain parts of the body. NIOSH is conducting studies to help stimulate the next generation of cooling suits, by generating data that will answer current uncertainties that impede innovation. For example, in what conditions might a partial cooling suit provide as much relief from heat as a full-body suit, while giving a fire fighter greater freedom of movement and more comfort? Is the added weight of the cooling system offset by its benefits?

No burns! Fire fighters’ protective ensembles are designed to protect against burns – but in some cases, fire fighters still suffer burns even though the gear is not visibly damaged. Why? It may be the result of thermal energy, which can build up in the multiple layers of the protective clothing. The thermal energy may be transferred to the fire fighter’s skin as heat, causing a burn, when the layers are compressed, which may result from simple actions such as leaning against a wall or kneeling.

NIOSH is focusing research to develop test methods for determining which materials are more likely to store thermal energy, and where a burn is likely to occur on the body from compressions of the clothing. Results of the studies will help manufacturers and users to improve precautions for current products while advancing materials and designs for future products.

Keep out! Emergency responders depend on hazmat suits as a barrier against harmful chemicals in a variety of situations, from cleaning up industrial chemical spills to investigating potential terrorist attacks. Currently, these suits are designed to prevent or delay a “breakthrough” of any and all chemicals. As a result, hazmat suits are uniformly thick, heavy, and cumbersome – perhaps needlessly so in some cases where a lighter material or fewer layers of material might provide equally effective protection. Also, because any breakthrough – even water – requires that the responder be removed from the scene to change into another suit, an emergency operation may be delayed or disrupted even if the responder is not at any risk from the breakthrough, either immediately or long-term. However, manufacturers and users lack data needed to drive new technical standards that could allow for more versatility in materials, designs, and deployment, while still offering needed protection.

NIOSH is working with partners to meet this need, with studies in a key area of uncertainty that has to be addressed before progress can be made – how long will different types and thicknesses of materials resist different chemicals before the chemicals break through the materials?