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Flame Resistant Clothing and Uniforms: Why NFPA 1975 Matters

Blauer FR Uniforms Blog

Nobody wants to get burned in a fire.  Even if it’s a possibility you’ve accepted as a firefighter, it’s important to understand that the choices that you make about what you wear under your turnout gear can either contribute to being burned or help prevent it.  But how do you know what to choose?  Let’s discuss.

NFPA 1975 – Standard on Emergency Services Work Clothing Elements

The NFPA 1975 standard is intended to “safeguard emergency services personnel… by establishing requirements for flame-resistant clothing that won’t cause or exacerbate burn injury.”  Every component which goes into a garment certified to this standard is independently tested, and then tested as a whole once incorporated into the garment, by independent certification laboratories.

Included in the standard are garments which are made of FR Cotton as well as Aramid fibers such as NOMEX® and Kermel® – but what are the differences, and which performs better?  We spoke with Stephen Blauer, in charge of product development for many years and an industry expert when it comes to uniform apparel, to find out, but you can also watch the video below to get an idea of what happens to each of the various materials when exposed to heavy fire – and the predicted burn injuries for each: Watch Dupont ThermoMan Video

Cotton Is Not A Good Choice

While cotton is still the choice of many fire agencies throughout the United States, primarily due to the comfort factor and cost, it is not a good option for clothing to be worn under your turnout gear for a couple of reasons.

The first of these: cotton absorbs moisture and holds it in, which causes a few issues. While you’re inside trying to knock down a fire, the environment can reach hundreds of degrees, meaning you will be sweating.  If that heat then penetrates your gear, either through areas such as the nape of your neck or cuffs, or for other reasons, it can cause the sweat held in the cotton to flash evaporate, causing burns on your skin.  Even if that doesn’t happen, however, and you exit the working environment, the relatively colder temperatures outside (especially in winter) can leave you vulnerable to hypothermia due to being soaked through.  Having GORE-TEX or other materials in your turnout gear will do you no good in terms of moisture dissipation if the moisture can’t get away from your skin in the first place.

Second: cotton burns in a fire – it is not self-extinguishing and is a fuel which will burn until it is consumed.  No explanation is needed as to why that’s not a great property for something being worn into fire-pervasive environments.

NOMEX and Kermel – Aramid Fiber Properties

The next category, Aramid fibers such as NOMEX® and Kermel®, have properties which make them much more suitable for use under turnout gear.  First, unlike cotton, they do not burn – rather, they turn into ash when combusted, and are also self-extinguishing once lit.  This means that instead of trying to pry unburnt cotton fibers out of an area of skin which has been burned, at the worst you will be washing ash away from the area.

Comfort and durability are areas which have been a concern in the past with Aramid fibers, but which have now improved significantly with the advent of new materials.  Modern GlenGuard® Kermel, for example, is not only softer to the hand (and body) touch, but is also colorfast and fade-resistant due to the entire fiber being manufactured in a single solid color, in contrast to NOMEX materials which are piece-dyed (color is added after manufacture of the fiber.)

In terms of water absorption, Aramid fibers simply don’t absorb water by their nature.  This means that the concerns about fluid against your skin when it comes to temperature regulation and burn prevention are virtually nullified.

A Word About Poly/Cotton Blends

Far too many agencies are still wearing poly/cotton blends.  These are the worst possible choice that you could make in terms of base layers under your turnout gear and are not NFPA 1975 compliant for a reason.  Polyester is plastic, and plastic melts under heat – combine that with the burn properties of cotton and you have a recipe for a nightmare.  Simply put, the polyester will fuse with your skin and cannot be removed, and the cotton can cause worse burns overall.  That means skin grafts at best, and permanent non-repairable injuries at worst, including a potentially higher risk of infection and immune rejection at the burn site due to the foreign material’s presence.  If your agency is wearing this as a station wear uniform that is intended to be worn under your turnout gear, it should change over immediately.

In the end, the choice of a slightly more expensive Aramid FR uniform can prevent not only long-term disability and the associated costs of care to a municipality, but are more frankly a matter of protecting those who serve their communities and have volunteered to take on a career battling the scourge of fire on their behalf.

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