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Integrated Clothing Project
Feature: 3/5/2002

London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority

The London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority is looking to procure all its clothing needs, including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), from a single supplier. And the Authority has set up an Integrated Clothing Project to achieve this aim and Corporate Clothing director-e is working closely with the London Fire Brigade to provide help and promotion for the project (director-e News, Wednesday 22 May).

Speaking to Corporate Clothing director-e, Peter Guest, senior divisional officer for the London Fire Brigade and project manager for the Integrated Clothing Project, said: "We are looking to secure a single, fully managed contract for all our clothing, which will also reflect our corporate identity. So the supplier will need to take into account PPE needs, climate control and other factors in clothing worn underneath protective outer garments and also create a softer, less military image".
The following article, written by Peter Guest, appeared in the magazine Fire Times and examines the background to the formation of the Integrated Clothing Project and the parameters for supplying uniforms and other clothing to the London Fire Brigade.

Project Background

The Partner Brigades Group (PBG) was formed following a project launch hosted by London in September 2000. The original group of ten has since grown to twenty UK fire brigades, who are working collaboratively to develop fully risk based - outcome specifications to meet all fire service clothing needs writes Peter Guest, Senior Divisional Officer, London Fire Brigade and Project Manager for the Integrated Clothing Project

All fire authorities are under a legal obligation to provide their workforce with adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as set out in the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations (1992) and relevant European standards. This clothing and equipment must be "fit for purpose" being suitable for the roles/tasks personnel are expected to perform. In addition to meeting its PPE responsibilities, fire authorities also provide clothing for normal day-to-day working activities for a number of staff roles.

It is amazing to think that a little over ten years ago, fire-fighters were wearing woollen coats, cork and canvas helmets and plastic over-trousers and gloves. Modern fire service PPE has benefited from improved material technologies, often developed for other users such as NASA and Formula One. Up and down the country accident statistics indicate that previous investment in improved fire-fighter protection has been worthwhile. Given that significant improvements have been achieved, and with fire authorities facing difficult financial choices, is there a justifiable reason to change the current PPE, or as someone once said, "if it ain't broke why fix it?"

Fire Service PPE primarily designed for structural fire-fighting comes in a wide range of colours and styles ...
Fire Service PPE primarily designed for structural fire-fighting comes in a wide range of colours and styles Ö

... but is it suitable for all the tasks we ask it to perform or are we creating other risks?... but is it suitable for all the tasks we ask it to perform or are we creating other risks?
... but is it suitable for all the tasks we ask it to perform or are we creating other risks?

Drivers for Change

Health and Safety
Whilst evidence suggests that modern PPE has brought about significant reductions in injuries to fire-fighters, there are concerns about its performance; most notably that it retains excessive body heat - especially during the summer months. Current fire kit to EN 469 is designed for structural fire-fighting, that is to say its primary purpose is to protect fire-fighters inside burning buildings. Anecdotal evidence suggests that different risks might have been created by 'over-protecting' fire-fighters at certain incidents.

Modern PPE might also be providing fire-fighters with a false sense of security. Basic fire-fighting techniques such as keeping low, reading the warning signs likeplastic melting, plaster spalling etc., are being forgotten; and as the 1974 and '78 intakes leave, we are losing experience and knowledge built up over time . A balance is needed between protection and awareness of the hazardous conditions outside the protection. One safety expert recently explained, "reduced levels of injuries are a typical benefit of improved PPE, however whilst the incidence of injuries decreases the possibility of a rare catastrophic failure increases"

Further, PPE designed for structural fire-fighting, is used by the majority of UK brigades as a 'jack of all trades' for use at all types of incidents. We need to establish whether current PPE is appropriate for dealing with incidents such as: grass fires, road traffic accidents, persons shut in lifts or trapped in machinery, flooding, animal rescues and other special service calls, to establish whether by reducing risk at fires we have increased the risk at other incidents.

So as a Group, we are examining concepts of integrating a number of items of clothing to form a layered or modular system of PPE and seeking solutions that will maintain or enhance the comfort and safety of both wholetime and part-time fire-fighters, across the full range of operational activities. The terms layered or modular may be unfamiliar here and the Partner Brigades have agreed the following definitions:
  • A Layered System - with protection built up in layers from the skin outwards. The various layers are designed to offer varying levels of protection appropriate to the risks faced.
  • A Modular System - a wearer can select a PPE module (or modules) to suit the risk faced, with the clothing worn underneath the module playing no significant part in the protection offered.

What has been identified so far is that whilst a number of solutions are technically possible, the fire service's ability to manage a PPE system is likely to be the major determining factor in selecting a solution.

Other Drivers for Change

Whilst safety is the primary driver in seeking further improvements to PPE, there are other issues which will impact on fire authorities future clothing requirements. These include both internal and external issues such as the following:

  1. The findings of the Thematic Review on Equalities and Fairness
    The Thematic Review challenged the service to find uniform and clothing that would not be seen as a barrier by people who might wish to join. Whilst some within the service may contest the review's findings, few can argue with the sentiment that our clothing should help to attract a workforce which reflects the diverse communities we serve.
  2. A National Identity for the UK Fire Service
    In the absence of any central control or direction, the UK fire services have adopted a wide range of styles and colours in the clothing . Choices are often made by principal officers who seek to put 'their stamp' on a brigade through the clothes worn and the appliances driven. If the fire service is serious about Community Fire Safety, then a clearly identifiable image, similar to that achieved by the ambulance service, is needed.
  3. A Corporate Image for Individual Brigades
    If a National Identity can be agreed, the use of subtle variations could achieve a 'Corporate Identity' for individual brigades. But, such individuality may come at a cost and diminish potential savings from joint procurement ventures.
  4. National Audit Office Report - 'A Uniform Approach'
    The NAO report on fire service procurement published earlier this year gave clear notice to brigades that re-inventing the same wheel up and down the country was no longer acceptable. Brigades must work together to agree specifications in line with Government guidance on collaboration - a primary aim of the ICP.
  5. Best Value
    Best Value, particularly the BV Review of Procurement, will also force brigades to question current practice to ensure that PPE and clothing procurement provide Value for Money. The ICP offers a vehicle to help achieve Best Value.
  6. Alternative Funding Streams such as PFI or PPP
    The cost of providing PPE and clothing to meet the needs of a modern public service is significant. The ICP sought PFI support but this has not been approved for this year and other funding sources are being explored.
  7. BS / EN / ISO Standards
    It is widely recognised that the BS/EN Standards for PPE give some assurance as to the likely performance of individual items. However the tests are not performance based and do not reflect the reality of use nor do they deal with the compatibility of various elements that make up a PPE system. The Project will support work to achieve more appropriate test methods.

In addition brigades need to replace a wide range of existing contracts as part of the normal cycle of procurement activity. Brigades need to put in place management systems for the PPE element of their clothing provision in line with the PPE Regulations (1992)., the Partner Brigades Group will develop 'best practice' guidance to assist brigades in this area.

A schematic diagram setting out many of the national PPE and clothing issues and their relationship with the Integrated Clothing Project is set out in Diagram 1.

The Methodology

In line with the Government's modernising agenda and the thrust towards a more collaborative approach on issues of mutual benefit within the public sector, the Integrated Clothing Project is working in co-operation and partnership with fire brigades, technical experts / specialists and manufacturers / potential contractors.

The project will provide the participating fire authorities, (The Partner Brigades Group) with risk based recommendations for clothing solutions that offer enhanced performance of the four kits; Operational Wear, Station Wear, Sports Wear and Corporate Wear and incorporate the four themes of Best Value, Community Fire Safety, Equality & Diversity and National/Corporate Image.

The Project is divided into four phases:

  1. Market Sounding
  2. Research and Development
  3. Joint Procurement Ventures
  4. Implementation

Phase 1 - Market Sounding

Following the launch in 2000, the Project Team held in??formal briefings with over 50 companies from the fire service related clothing industry. We have been able to impress on potential service providers the need for them to build industry wide collaborative working arrangements to ensure the compatibility of their products. It is no longer acceptable for the fire service to select the individual components of a PPE system, only to find out later that items do not work together, resulting in risk of system failure and the potential to cause injury to a wearer. Helmet manufacturers need to talk with tunic makers who need to talk to glove and boot providers to ensure their products are designed to work together, under all conditions minimising the risk and stress to the wearers. (CACFOA's PPE Forum are also delivering the same message through their Industry Liaison Panel). This phase drew to a close with the PBG agreeing the Project Outline Business Case.

Phase 2 - Research and Development

Phase two is now in full swing:
  • Seeking the views of both internal and external stakeholders
  • Seeking examples of best practice in the UK and overseas
  • Interrogatingaccident and occupational health statistics for trends / common areas of risk
  • Working with industry to develop technical solutions / options
  • Conducting and agreeing a comprehensive Risk Analysis of all fire service activities
  • Drafting and agreeing a full suite of User Requirements to meet identified activities
  • Drafting and agreeing a full suite of Outcome Based Specifications to meet the User Requirements
  • Drafting and agreeing common evaluation criteria to ensure fair and consistent evaluation of potential solutions throughout the PBG

Phases 3 & 4

Once work on phase two is complete, the individual Partner Brigades will decide what form of procurement suits their particular circumstances. This decision will be based on a number of factors including timescales for replacement, affordability and if external funding is available. It will almost certainly lead to some joint procurement ventures.

The Partner Brigades Group

The Partner Brigades Group currently comprises:
Avon Fire Brigade
Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service
Avon Fire Brigade
Northern Ireland Fire Service
Norfolk Fire Brigade
Central Scotland Fire Brigade
Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service
Essex County Fire and Rescue Service
Oxfordshire Fire Service
Grampian Fire Brigade
Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service
Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service
Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service
Kent Fire Brigade
Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service
London Fire Brigade
Surrey Fire and Rescue Service
Lothian & Borders Fire Brigade
Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service
Mid and West Wales Fire Service
West Midlands Fire Service
The North East Strategic Partnership (4 NE Brigades)

Other brigades are welcome to join the Group.

External 'Partners'

CFBAC - Uniform Task Group
The Project is pleased to be working with and be supported by the Uniform Task Group, (a sub-committee of the CFBAC). The UTG are developing nationally recommended best practice for the design, wearing, procurement and maintenance of clothing having particular regard to the development of national identity, and see the ICP as a means of achieving their goals.

CACFOA - Appliances, Equipment and Uniform Committee - PPE Forum
The Project is also delighted to be working with and supported by CACFOA's PPE Forum. CACFOA's recently published policy statement on fire service uniform helps to underpin everything the ICP is trying to achieve.

In Conclusion

As Ian Moses (Grampian) pointed out at the last Group Meeting, "This is not a short-term project able to provide a quick fix for brigades. This is a major piece of work that will help shape the future of protective clothing for many years to come". We hope complete Phase Two during 2002 to allow full-scale wearer trials to be conducted over a summer and winter period. By agreeing evaluation criteria the results of solutions trialed anywhere within the Group should produce evidence that will be considered valid by all Partners.

I began this article by quoting the PPE Regulations, which make it clear that PPE is a 'last resort' and elimination or avoidance of the hazard comes first. The fire service has for many years recognised that PPE is only a part of a safe system of work. Perhaps the case should also be made to the HSE that the regulations were not made with fire-fighters in mind, where our work location cannot be controlled as in a factory. It is a given that our work environment is hostile, and in effect, the PPE IS our place of work.

For further information about the Integrated Clothing Project please contact a member of the Clothing Project Team on 0207 587 6924.

Schematic diagram of the Partner Brigades Integrated Clothing Project and its relationship with other National PPE/Clothing Issues.

Author: Peter Guest
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