For many years, Williams Fire & Hazard Control accepted whatever the personal protective clothing market offered that came closest to their specialized needs as industrial firefighters handling emergencies such as large volume tank fires, said Chauncey Naylor, senior manager, emergency response operations.
“A basic PBI coverall with no pockets and no frills was our best choice,” he said. “Generally, wearing the standard gear is like wearing a sack, with straight legs and arms that are all one size fits all,” he said.
Then, during the Industrial Fire World Training and Expo event in Mobile, AL, Naylor made contact with Greenville, SC-based Ashburn Hill Corp., makers of TECGEN fiber used in fire resistant garments. TECGEN agreed to alter their garment design to specifically meet Williams F&HC’s needs.
“They were modeling their wildland fire gear with pants and mid-thigh jacket,” Naylor said. “It had an unusual look because of the material they were using. It’s a black material with a tan thread. The combination creates the appearance of green gear, so we call them the green ones.”
Most important, TECGEN offered a customer focus with their product, he said.
“When we asked them a question, they always answered ‘yes’ or ‘yes we can,’” Naylor said. “Too often the answer is, ‘We can’t.’ We have a policy that we don’t buy ‘can’ts.’”
TECGEN plans to market the unique PPE as “a Williams Fire & Hazard Control design,” he said.
Other than marine fire fighting, which requires bunker gear, Williams F&HC is principally concerned with protecting firefighters from radiant heat and flash fires.
“Once you extinguish the fire, the heat goes away,” Naylor said. “Many firefighters responding to the kinds of fire we fight end up laying five-inch hose as far as a mile away wearing full bunker gear designed for interior confined space heat only as dictated by fire department policy. I can see using helmets with eye protection, gloves and steel-toed boots to do that work. However, structural fire fighting gear is over the top. Totally not necessary. It wears the firefighters out before the real work begins. You can’t keep them hydrated. You don’t want to have to wear that gear before it is necessary.”
One of the first steps in developing the latest design was placing the standard TECGEN design side by side with the PPE in use by Williams F&HC.
“When TECGEN brought their sample here, we laid it out on the floor,” Naylor said. “Like everyone else, it was the standard box cut with straight legs and arms. There was no real fit.”
By comparison, the PPE preferred by Williams F&HC offered tapered body, legs and sleeves.
“The CEO, Jon Heard from TECGEN, looked at that and said, ‘I can save a yard and a half of material making it your way.’ So he did it,” Naylor said.
Other options that Williams F&HC wanted were elastic in the back at the waist and latch up straps for a better fit at the hips. Whereas TECGEN offered a light weight plastic clip as a latch up device, Williams F&HC asked for a Velcro strap that would be easier and quicker to use.
“It became a place to hang our phone or radio on each side so we could clip the speaker to our collar,” Naylor said.
TECGEN replaced their patch pocket with a billows pocket that could expand to hold more items. Some of the other changes by Williams F&HC improved the protection from heat and fire.
“The bottom of the leg originally had a zipper to allow your boot to get through,” Naylor said. “Then you zip it up to fit over or slip inside the boot,” Naylor said. “But it did not have leg protection when unzipped, so they added the protective flap that expands when unzipped and folds nicely when zipped.”
When it rains, firefighters wear the flap outside the boot to keep the water out, he said.
Reflective tape is standard issue with most PPE these days. Williams F&HC rejected it outright.
“We told them we don’t want that stuff all over our coveralls just to burn it off,” Naylor said. “Just put some around the lower leg and arms so we can track our guys at night,” Naylor said.
TECGEN took Williams F&HC’s specifications and turned it into an actual product.
“They did exactly what we wanted,” Naylor said. “If it is not, then shame on us.”
When Williams F&HC started in the early 1980s, the preference in PPE was white cotton coveralls. Even with the advent of Nomex, the Williams F&HC crew clung to the use of white cotton PPE.
“We weren’t convinced that Nomex met our needs because the cotton coveralls were so disposable,” Naylor said. “When we got them dirty we could just toss them and get replacements.”
Williams F&HC eventually made the move to Nomex coveralls worn over fire retardant underwear for an added level of protection. Then PBI (polybenzimidazole) came along, a synthetic fiber with a high melting point and no ignition temperature.
Flash burn testing such as the ThermoMan demonstration reveals that while FR cotton and Nomex protected well during the initial flash fire, it soon became so brittle that it broke apart, Naylor said.
“If you didn’t have secondary flame resistant underwear, you were fully exposed.”
However, even PBI has its drawbacks, Naylor said.
“We may be wearing it up to 15 days or more on a response,” he said. “PBI doesn’t stand up to long term exposure to ultra violet sunlight.”
It took tough negotiations with fiber manufacturer Celanese to come up with a source for making the PBI PPE custom fit coveralls that Williams F&HC wanted, Naylor said.
“We were sworn to secrecy,” he said. “It was about two years before they allowed us to become a distributor for that new gear.”
For nearly 10 years Williams F&HC relied on PBI gear tailored to its needs. On average, a Williams F&HC responder might need from five to eight sets of PPE, owing to the unknown length of the events involved.
Keeping the gear clean is another issue, Naylor said.
“If it gets saturated with hydrocarbons, you can’t just roll it up and keep it in the truck because the hydrocarbons will break down the fibers,” he said. “Washing the gear using an extraction type laundry done commercially is required after a fire.” Also, if carbon builds up in the gear, it can actually become flammable.
However, between changing NFPA standards and trying to get the design that Williams F&HC wanted, the cost became very expensive, Naylor said. The minimum order for the special design was 1,000 sets. Williams F&HC scaled back to a generic PBI coverall reserved for flammable liquid fire use only.
“We were willing to sacrifice proper fit for adequate protection after a flash fire,” Naylor said.
That changed after Williams F&HC discovered TECGEN.
“We looked at companies all over the world, even ones making flight suits,” Naylor said. “TECGEN is the company that made what we asked for the first time without charging us an arm and a leg.”
Adding to the comfort factor is TECGEN’s ability to allow moisture vapor to be transmitted through the material, also known as breathability.
“I like it because it feels almost like my pajamas as far as comfort,” Naylor said. “If a firefighter can’t work wearing something this weight they need to be working in a library.”
With regard to price, Naylor said Williams F&HC applies the same standard to purchasing PPE as it does to selling fire foam.
“You know, we have never sold the cheapest foam,” he said. “We sell based on performance.”
Williams F&HC takes its choice of PPE extremely seriously because other firefighters almost take it as a seal of approval.
“When it comes to our bunker gear, our customers want to know what we are wearing,” he said. “If it works for us, they anticipate it will work for them.”