Categories: Breaking News, PPE
Tags: PPE

Special rescue demands special gear

Share this content


The story of how the Puyallup Extrication Team found its fit with Fire-Dex

From tight spaces and twisted metal to shattered glass and oily spills, the dangers faced by first responders extracting people from motor vehicle accidents are significant.

Be it intense engine heat, fumes hissing from a ruptured fuel tank or airbags still containing explosive charges, these everyday heroes must take extra precautions to aid crash victims while ensuring their own safety.

Even the latest vehicles equipped with advanced safety features such as high-strength materials, or unfamiliar componentry including electric or hybrid powertrains, can add complexity to the extrication process and require specialised knowledge and tools.

The foremost consideration for vehicle extrication teams is to make certain they are equipped with the right personal protective equipment (PPE) for these unpredictable rescue operations.

Traditional firefighting gear naturally emphasises thermal protection to safeguard wearers in dangerous environments.

Designing PPE that prioritises the mobility and performance required for vehicle extrications is a different challenge, however, that requires garment manufacturers to rethink the way ensembles respond to wearers’ movements in the most critical moments.

For Washington-based Puyallup Extrication Team (PXT)—a group of fire industry specialists that teach special skills for removing people trapped in severe auto accidents—lighter, lithely alternatives to the bulky garments often worn by roadside responders are imperative to their mission.

It is risky work negotiating vehicular wreckage and that is why this team leaves nothing to chance starting with their gear.

Teaching lifesaving techniques

Comprised of 17 professional firefighters specialising in the latest auto extrication methods, PXT (Puyallup, Washington) is a nonprofit organisation that has instructed thousands of rescuers from Alaska to Argentina since 2000.

With a cache of equipment and a stable of qualified instructors, the team travels thousands of miles annually to bring quality education to firefighters where they work.

Classes range from basic to advanced and cover auto extrication, technical heavy extrication and new vehicle/hybrid extrication techniques.

These interactions have a compounding effect on the way PXT performs rescues in its own communities and its teachings.

This includes PPE considerations, and for Puyallup instructors, alternative firefighting gear is the preferred choice for both work and instructional activities.

“We’ve had the good fortune to try many types of PPE over our 23 years in extrication—helmets, gloves, eyewear, boots, fatigues,” says Jeff Pugh, PXT president and 34-year fire industry veteran. 

“When we’ve made a switch it’s because it works better for us, and that’s why we no longer wear standard bunker gear when performing our duties as instructors or when we’re competing against other rescue teams.”

Pugh describes how structural firefighting gear, while providing exceptional physical and thermal protection, tends to lack the freedom of movement necessary to access awkward positions during the extrication process.

The considerable weight of bunker gear can also be problematic and increase the risk of heat stress during prolonged periods of intense physical activity.

Pursuing optimal performance

Seeking a better fit for its rescue team, PXT began to explore alternative PPE garments that could facilitate greater manoeuvrability when disentangling accident victims, while also standing up to the hazards posed by jagged objects, scorching-hot surfaces and harmful substances.

After consulting with peers and conducting research, the team developed a list of criteria for its new gear that specifies the ideal garment will:

  1. Utilise lightweight yet durable materials to help minimise fatigue and enable wearers to move more freely and swiftly during missions.
  2. Be ergonomically designed to fit the body’s contours and allow a full range of motion, with articulated joints and gusseted panels that facilitate easier bending, crouching and reaching.
  3. Incorporate stretchable material to improve ease of movement, as well as adjustable features like straps and closures allowing wearers to customise the fit.
  4. Reduce bulkiness and unnecessary features that can be a hindrance in rescue scenarios.
  5. Incorporate proper ventilation and moisture-wicking properties to help regulate body temperature and minimise heat stress and discomfort.
  6. Offer strategic placement of protective padding and reinforced high-wear areas such as knees, elbows and shoulders without obstructing movements.
  7. Incorporate reflective elements to improve visibility.
  8. Be designed to accommodate the integration of necessary tools, communication devices and wearable technologies, such as harnesses, radio systems and personal lighting devices.
  9. Remain easy to don and doff to help save valuable time during emergencies.
  10. Meet NFPA requirements for technical rescue.

A better alternative

For most fire departments, the majority of responses including vehicle extrications are non-structural in nature—up to 90% of calls in some cases. This presents the opportunity to wear lighter weight, single-layer garments opposed to full bunker gear on every call.

Following a survey of the market, PXT chose Fire-Dex, a leading manufacturer of firefighting PPE, to outfit its instructors in garments befitting an extrication scenario.

Fire-Dex showed the team sets of TECGEN51 Fatigues made from a twill-weave fabric having a pattern of diagonal parallel ribs for sturdiness but that is breathable and minimally burdening while providing the necessary flame-resistant (FR) rating protection.

Consisting of a high-density carbon shell encasing a viscoelastic core, the fabric’s special backing exhibits both elastic and viscous behaviour when deformed.

This makes it possible to offer the equivalent thermal protection of a carbon fibre without the traditional drawbacks of compromised strength, meaning the fibre bends and stretches without breaking.

At the same time, DuPont Kevlar and Nomex fibres on the face of the fabric provide strength to complement the thermal protection and elasticity of the backing.

Kevlar was introduced to the fire industry in 1971 and has since been a material that firefighters depend on, as it exhibits an extremely high tensile strength-to-weight ratio that is claimed to be five times greater than steel.

Nomex, on the other hand, is inherently strong, flame resistant and flexible. According to DuPont™, garments made with Nomex last an average of two to three times longer than most other protective fabrics.

This design, further incorporating ultralight thermal liners used in many types of fire suits, achieved the significant accomplishment of passing the NFPA minimum Thermal Protective Performance (TPP) requirement of 35 for thermal liners.

It also carries the highest Total Heat Loss (THL) rating on the market per NFPA testing and provides optimum radiant protective (RPP) performance.

Importantly for PXT, the design contributes to increased flexibility, durability and comfort while meeting rigorous NFPA safety standards.

As alternative firefighting apparel combining fabric tensile strength, thermal protection and ergonomic needs into lighter, closer fitting garments, the fatigues are certified to both NFPA 1951 (technical rescue) and NFPA 1977 (wildland rescue).

Since adopting Fire-Dex’s TECGEN51 Fatigues, PXT instructors have shed pounds compared to wearing traditional bunker gear and found the ideal jacket and pant combination for their unusual line of work.

“We’re pretty mobile in our teachings and competitions, so if you don’t have the right fit it can be hard to get around,” Pugh adds.

“It might be 12 hours or more we’re geared up so if the inseam is off, or you’ve got sagging pants, or there’s shrinkage at the elbows and sleeves, well it’s going to be a long day.

To the rescue

The dangers faced by auto accident responders require them to be prepared for any eventuality.

As PXT competes and shares knowledge with firefighters from across the world, it does so with confidence its instructors are wearing fatigues offering an improved fit and maximum protection that also incorporate the latest materials and technologies to provide optimum strength and mobility.

Today the team wears one of the lightest ensembles around and has felt the immediate impact of its ergonomic design and noticeable reduction in weight, empowering instructors to perform their duties with greater agility and less physical exertion.

These thoughtfully designed features solidify the importance of choosing the right PPE for maximising the effectiveness of extrication teams during their critical missions.

Moreover, fire departments that invest in alternative PPE for non-structural calls can demonstrate a commitment to the modernisation of firefighting practices and a dedication to the well-being of their personnel.

For any mission that demands quick and precise actions, the advantages of these lighter protective ensembles are evident.

This article was originally published in the October 2023 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

Receive the latest breaking news straight to your inbox