Dressed for success: The evolution of PPE for female firefighters
Roger Startin, Joint Managing Director of Bristol Uniforms, reports on the development of personal protective equipment for women in the UK Fire Service
It has been more than 20 years since Bristol Uniforms was the first UK manufacturer to introduce female standard sizes for structural firefighting PPE. During this time, the number of female firefighters joining the Service has continued to grow. A report recently published by the Home Office shows that 6.4 per cent of UK firefighters are now women, compared to just 3.6 per cent ten years ago. As more and more women consider firefighting as a career, it is essential that they receive not only equal opportunities in their job roles, but equal protection from their PPE.
The timeline overleaf outlines the history of women in the UK Fire Service in the modern era, since they have been formally admitted into fire brigades. There are, however, plenty of examples of heroic female firefighters that precede this. Female brigades carried out firefighting and rescue during World War I, for example, and thousands of women were recruited into the National Fire Service during World War II, although usually (but not exclusively) for administrative or driving positions.
As a clothing manufacturer for more than 200 years and a specialist firefighting PPE manufacturer for the last 60 years, Bristol Uniforms itself has a long history of providing protection for male and female firefighters at home and abroad. When the very first female firefighters began to join the UK Fire Service throughout the 1980s, Bristol supplied bespoke, made-to-measure sizes on request from fire services needing kit for female crew members.
“Bristol Uniforms have been a leader in protective clothing design for women, helping address issues close to our heart”
In 1996, the tragic death of firefighter Fleur Lombard highlighted the outstanding contribution made by many women to the Fire Service in the UK and prompted the government and researchers to investigate how PPE services different body types. This led to Dr Mandy Stirling’s anthropometric study in 2002, which gave a series of recommendations on how PPE should be adapted to suit the female form. The report was supported by the Fire Brigades Union who appointed their first female President, Ruth Winters, the same year.
Bristol had already introduced standard female sizes to the market by this stage and was reassured that its kit met with the recommendations, but nevertheless studied the report closely and used it to adjust and refine its styles.
The Stirling report also led to the introduction of the female test manikin, SOPHIE (System Objective Protection against Heat in an Emergency), commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive in 2006. Prior to this, the industry testing centre, BTTG, used a manikin in a male form: RALPH (Research Aim Longer Protection Against Heat). In 2006 RALPH was updated and joined by female-shaped model SOPHIE. Crucially, PPE could now be tested on a female form to ensure full protection for both male and female body shapes.
By 2007, Bristol Uniforms completed an Equality and Diversity offering as part of its tender submission for the Integrated Clothing Project: the UK’s first collaborative procurement scheme for firefighting PPE. Our Development Designer, Helena Hobbs, worked on the research and development for production specifications at the time, which included developing a co-ordinated range that would be inclusive not only to women but to diverse faith and racial groups. Helena comments: “We needed to provide a uniform that would encompass as many individuals as possible within a cohesive range, taking into account not only comfortable and protective structural firefighting PPE, but also inclusive station wear that was cut modestly to suit women of a range of faith groups.
“The outcome was a full range of clothing for female and male firefighters, with all female clothing manufactured by Bristol based on anthropometric surveys and cut from specially developed blocks to conform specifically to female physiology.”
Bristol’s subsequent PPE ranges for the UK market continue to offer provision for female and male firefighters, including the most recent range for the Collaborative Framework for the national procurement of firefighter PPE, launched in 2017.
Looking to the Future
Bristol Uniforms’ commitment to the provision of high-quality PPE for female and male firefighters is ongoing, and the company’s support for female firefighters has been further demonstrated through its sponsorship of WFS training and development events since 2015.
The new Chair of WFS, Jules King, said: “We’ve been very happy to have had the support of Bristol Uniforms over the last few years. They’ve been a valued sponsor, putting their brand and backing behind our work to create change and help build a more progressive Fire and Rescue Service. Bristol Uniforms have been a leader in protective clothing design for women, helping address issues close to our heart. Ensuring correctly fitting kit means safety is maintained and ultimately better outcomes all round.”
Bristol Uniforms’ Joint Managing Director, Roger Startin, concluded: “Ultimately, whether male or female, every firefighter deserves to have PPE that fits well, is comfortable, offers the best possible protection and enables the range of movement required to carry out a physically demanding job.”
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