Scientists find way to make firefighters’ clothing safer and more durable

Researcher Saiful Hoque’s study of fabrics and fibres shows how to make firefighters’ clothing safer. Credit: Naimur Rahman.

Researchers at the University of Alberta have conducted two important studies to make firefighters’ clothing safer to wear, maintain, and manufacture.

Their findings could lead to significant improvements in the materials used for protective gear, ensuring better safety for firefighters.

The first study, published in the Journal of Polymer Science, looked at how different fabrics used in firefighters’ clothing break down over time.

Researchers tested 15 different types of yarn in eight common fabrics used in protective gear.

They exposed these fibers to heat and water, simulating real-life firefighting and laundry conditions. The fibers were soaked in both neutral and acidic water at temperatures ranging from 40°C to 90°C for up to 1,200 hours.

The results showed that a specific type of fiber blend, para-aramid/polybenzimidazole (PBI), deteriorated 68% faster when exposed to moisture compared to other fire-protective fabrics. PBI fibers are known for their flexibility and high-temperature resistance, making them popular for firefighters’ outer jackets and trousers.

However, these fibers are made using sulfuric acid, which leaves behind traces that make the fabric more sensitive to moisture and prone to faster degradation.

Saiful Hoque, who led the research, suggested that manufacturers need to find ways to remove the residual sulfur from PBI fibers to improve their durability.

Additionally, he recommended washing garments with PBI fibers separately to prevent damage to other fabrics that do not contain PBI and are less susceptible to degradation in warm water.

The study also found that another type of fiber, meta-aramid, showed excellent resistance to heat and water. A fabric sample made of 93% meta-aramid fibers lost only 4% of its strength after being immersed in water at 90°C for 1,200 hours.

This discovery provides valuable information for manufacturers to choose more durable materials for firefighters’ gear. Meta-aramid fibers could also be used in other products frequently exposed to water, such as marine safety equipment.

In the second study, published in Fibers and Polymers, Hoque and his team developed a method to analyze the water used in their experiments.

This method can help fabric manufacturers make their production processes more environmentally friendly. The analysis identified three dye-related compounds that pose risks to the environment, especially when they leach into water systems.

Although these compounds are not recommended for use, some manufacturers might still be using them. The study’s findings can help prevent environmental pollution and encourage manufacturers to adopt more sustainable practices.

These two studies provide a deeper understanding of the durability and environmental impact of the materials used in firefighters’ protective clothing.

By identifying the weaknesses in current fabrics and suggesting improvements, the research helps manufacturers make better decisions in creating safer and more durable gear. This, in turn, enhances the safety and effectiveness of firefighters’ clothing, protecting those who risk their lives to protect others.

Overall, the University of Alberta’s research represents a significant step forward in improving the safety and sustainability of firefighters’ protective gear.