Wildfire PPE – Why investment in wildfire protection should be a top UK priority (24th August 2020)
Andy Elliott has been an on-call firefighter for 38 years, specialising in wildfires since 1998. In 2018 he set up Wildfire Training and Consultancy and is currently a Senior Research Fellow in Wildfire at the University of Exeter. He recently spoke with Hainsworth Protective Fabrics to express his personal thoughts about the state of wildland firefighting in the UK, and the need for better investment into PPE for wildland use.
“We’ve always had wildfires in the UK, but now they’re growing year-on-year. There were 79 large (over 25 hectares) fires in the 2018, rising to 137 fires in 2019. And the warm weather in the first half of 2020 means that we’ve recently seen major fires at Wareham Forest in Dorset and Chobham Common in Surrey. It’s a global problem that is sadly only getting worse due to climate change – the Arctic Circle is currently seeing the worst wildfires in history. As this problem isn’t going to go away, the UK needs to invest significant knowledge and research into wildland firefighting.
“Unfortunately, in this country there’s still a lack of awareness about wildfires from many fire services, the government and the wider public. Our fire services tend to focus their activity on areas such as domestic fires, vehicle incidents and flooding, but there isn’t much investment put into understanding how wildfires work in the UK – how our fuel burns, how it spreads through our environment and so on.
“In my consultancy business I’ve worked with fire services around the world, and I’ve found that there is a lot to be learned from how other countries tackle wildfires. In the Western USA, Canada, South Africa, Australia etc., they have a greater understanding of wildfire behaviour and fire danger rating systems. Closer to home, services in Spain and France also have plenty of knowledge to share. These countries have been fighting wildfires for decades and are extremely well-organised and equipped. They know what tactics work and what PPE ensembles are the best. One of the things that drives me is that these other countries have already learned the tough lessons, and the UK shouldn’t have to re-learn them. International knowledge exchange is crucial – but the UK has to be brave enough to ask the right questions.
“One of the key areas in need of improvement is wildland protective gear. Very few UK services currently invest in the correct wildfire PPE for fighting wildfires, which can have catastrophic implications – there is a greater risk of injury from wearing the wrong PPE than there is from the actual fire. In order to successfully do their job, wildland firefighters need to have PPE that is comfortable and wearable. Unfortunately, not all of it is. I’ve seen firefighters around the world discarding or modifying parts of their PPE when they get too hot, for example by removing the liners to make the garment cooler. And sadly, many of these firefighters get badly injured and risk losing their careers or worse, their lives. In the UK you see the same thing – wildland firefighters are kitted out in heavy structural gear and end up discarding pieces of their kit in the process. This makes them very vulnerable to flashover injuries and so on. It’s critical that wildland PPE does the job and is wearable.
“I think there’s still a lot of developmental work to be done when it comes to making the gear comfortable. When I started as a firefighter I literally just had a cork helmet, plastic leggings and a wool tunic – no gloves or flash hoods. We had so little protection that we used to joke that you could tell it was too hot when your ears got crispy – we joked but it was true! However, nowadays firefighters are being issued with so much PPE that in some situations they’re getting overheated because they’re over-protected. It’s a balance that needs to be got right, and there needs to be a lot of consultation with the end users in the process.
“There are tried-and-tested combinations of materials that are effective in keeping firefighters cool, such as merino wool. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, just use what has been proven to work. I attended the recent Wareham Forest fire as a tactical advisor for two weeks and wore a Hainsworth ECO-DRY Shield top layer, which combines wool with meta-aramids. It was a world of difference from the usual structural PPE I have to wear – if I had been wearing the usual gear I would have been nowhere near as effective as I was able to be when wearing ECO-DRY. I had to walk the perimeter of the fire, which must have been 10 kilometres, several times and was able to maintain a sensible body temperature throughout. I was the only person there who didn’t have to remove any part of their PPE. Others were asking me, “Are you crazy, aren’t you hot?” But I was truly very comfortable and wore the garment throughout the two-week operation with no heat-stress issues at all.
“I think that when it comes to designing PPE, we need to factor what is already working and what clearly isn’t. By taking proven-effective ‘old’ materials and combining them with new technology, as Hainsworth Technology have done with ECO-DRY Shield, you can create something that works with the wearer to help them perform the best job they can while remaining safe. As the weather gets hotter and wildfires continue to spread, the UK needs to make quality PPE a greater priority in order to face up to this worsening challenge.”