Undoubtedly the most controversial change to hit the UK protective clothing industry in the last few years, is the Integrated Clothing Project (ICP). It was created to procure a supply of firefighters' PPE that would provide the best possible protection, as well as station wear and corporate wear. It also aimed to address all equality and diversity issues in the modern Fire and Rescue Service (FRS).
Although created with the best of intentions, the ICP eventually came under fire from some areas of the industry, which accused it of freezing innovation in the market, reducing competition and creating and unworkable scheme.
But the project carried on, and this year saw the conclusion of the ICP, with the selection of Bristol Uniforms as the preferred bidder.
Now, in an exclusive interview with director-e, Terry Brewer, CEO of national strategic procurement agency Firebuy, which was tasked with delivering the ICP procurement, tackles the criticism aimed at the project and explains what lies ahead for England's fire suits.
Advantages of a single uniform
One for the concerns that some critics raised about the project was that a national identity was unnecessary; that the existing system had been providing firefighters with protective clothing and ceremonial uniforms for years, and that there was no need for a single uniform across the country.
However, Terry told director-e: "This has been a difficult issue for the project, as establishing a national identity was one of the aims set for the ICP procurement from the outset.
"The Fire and Rescue Services (FRSs), through the Local Government Association and Chief Fire Officers' Association, will need to determine how they wish to take this issue forward but I believe that the ICP procurement process has produced some eye catching designs that will provide a smart, professional national identity if the FRS decides to go in that direction."
Added comfort for female firefighters
He also emphasised the advantages for female firefighters under the proposed system. "While a number of Fire and Rescue Authorities have made some progress in this area, the ICP has provided an entire range of clothing made specifically for women firefighters for the first time.
"This way, women firefighters have clothing that better conforms to their body shape, adding comfort and flexibility, and making them better equipped to do their job. They will not be provided with small men's sizes but women's sizes designed for women."
Diversity for both sexes
It's not just women who may benefit from the new system, however - the new uniforms are also being designed so that they can be scaled up or down to fit all kinds of body shapes and sizes.
"Some people have huge hands, whereas some people have small hands, almost child-like in size," said Terry. "We have to meet both those requirements and everything in-between; we don't want any firefighter to out to a job without proper protection, whatever their size."
Firebuy also consulted with diversity organisations across the country and ensured that the resulting clothing underwent extensive scientific wearer trials.These trials were conducted by the Health & Safety Laboratory in Buxton, and Firebuy claims that they were more comprehensive than any others before seen in the UK. All of this was done to ensure that the suits would be not only fit for purpose but the best available.
"We've done this on behalf of the English Fire and Rescue Service," said Terry, "but the Welsh FRS has expressed some interest, as has the MOD, and this is a real vote of confidence in the ICP."
The Lion Apparel lawsuit
One particularly controversial result of the ICP was the lawsuit issued by Lion Apparel. Lion complained about various aspects of the selection processes used and said it wanted more information about why its bid for the project had been unsuccessful. However, Firebuy says that it gave Lion as much information as it can while still being fair to its competitors.
It claims that some of the questions that Lion asked could only be answered by breaching the confidentiality of the other tenderers - something that the court agreed; the judge opened up a 'ring of confidentiality' that ensured only the legal teams, an independent third party agreed by both parties, and the court would be able to look at commercially sensitive areas.
The Lion suit also sought an injunction to stop Firebuy from signing the ICP contract with preferred bidder Bristol Uniforms, but the judge denied this after considering Lion's complaints in detail over six days.
Terry said: "He concluded that Lion might have a 'weak case' - that was his wording - on one of their points and a case on two more, but that those two were insignificant to the result of the selection process. He said that there was nothing in the rest of Lion's points. So as far as we are concerned, we have been fully vindicated at this stage. We are pressing on to deliver the results of the ICP for the benefit of all firefighters."
Continuing innovation and development
There were also concerns raised in the industry that having just one supplier for the entire English fire service would stifle innovation. After all, some said, if the winning bidder doesn't have to compete for contracts with other companies, there would be no need for it to try to raise its game.
However, this idea was met with some scepticism by Terry, who said: "Innovation in the fire market will not end - as part of the tender, we have required the winning bidder to put R&D expenditure into their financial projections and we have full visibility on that.
"We have also built in a complete technological refresh at the mid-point of the contract. We're very concerned about making sure we don't ossify and we expect to continue seeing innovation in those products - it's paramount for us."
Regarding suggestions that nobody outside Bristol Uniforms would be developing other technologies, he told director-e: "We must remember that we are not dealing with a market confined solely to the UK; Bristol Uniforms has eyes on foreign markets and will be able to bring in new innovations from there. Unsuccessful bidders can still compete outside of the ICP and in other areas."
Playing the long game
But for many, the biggest complaint about the ICP is that despite several years of development and tendering - and spending of public money - there has not been an immediate take-up by the majority of England's fire services.
In fact, there is currently nothing compelling fire services to take up the fruit of the ICP at all, which may come as some relief to some suppliers, but has raised eyebrows in other sectors of the industry.
Terry noted, however, that the ICP was always about playing the long game, rather than attempting to complete everything in the short-term.
"We'll be several years down the road before anything really starts to happen on a wide scale," he said. "You can't change to a national identity overnight; it's an expensive commitment and at the very least, you have to wait until FRAs' existing contractual commitments end. That could be anything between now and six years from now. But we are confident that FRAs will sign up to get the benefits offered by the ICP"
The future of the ICP
So where is the project going from here? Preferred bidder Bristol Uniforms, a 206-year-old company with decades of experience in the fire market and its carefully-designed Ergotech ranges of lightweight firefighting PPE, has just signed the first part of the contract to become the provider for the project.
It is now undergoing due diligence so that it can sign the second part of the contract to supply a managed care service, through its Bristol Care division, which was founded in 2000.
Terry Brewer summed things up: "Bristol and its subcontractors are now able to get on with their jobs and we look forward to seeing the roll-out. Lion Apparel may still take us to a full trial at some stage in the future, but it can only claim for damages, so it won't affect the uniform's' production or Bristol Uniform's' job.
"I think we've done a very professional job and I'm very proud of what we've done. Now I'm looking forward to getting out there and promoting it!"