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Defining Flame-Resistant Fabrics for Tactical Uniforms

Written by Derek Sang

Today’s tactical market has seen an increase in garments labeled “FR”—flame resistant, fire retardant, flame retardant, etc. However, there are no current standards, definitions or requirements for the tactical community to turn to as it relates to flame resistance.

No matter how low the probability of a team being exposed to an intentional or accidental thermal event, the operational effectiveness of that entry team can be dramatically compromised if that team is exposed to a detonation and someone’s clothing catches on fire.

Non flame-resistant fabrics such as cotton or polycotton blends (which make up the majority of the tactical garments in today’s market) can ignite. This dramatically increases body burn percentage and can turn a survivable situation into a fatality.

In fact, government reports note that the majority of severe and fatal burn injuries are due to the individual’s clothing igniting and continuing to burn—not by the exposure itself. If such an event occurred to cause garment ignition, that operator and team would have to extinguish the fire or likely have to remove the injured party from the location, possibly putting the operation at risk.

The best way to prevent a tactical uniform from igniting and burning is to ensure that the clothing is made from flame-resistant fabric. By requiring tactical uniforms to be made from flame-resistant fabric, you can eliminate clothing ignition from the equation.

The next logical step then becomes researching and specifying what flame-resistant fabrics are appropriate for the tactical uniforms to be made of. There are numerous fabrics available to the tactical community that claim to have flame-resistant performance.

Your fabric choice should be the first specification made, regardless of the garment configuration or style, because the fabric ultimately determines how the tactical uniform will perform in an unexpected thermal event and is directly related to the degree to which the wearer could be injured or burned.

A number of different aspects affect how a garment performs in a thermal event, including fabric weight, construction, fiber composition and flame-resistant technology. Some flame-resistant fabrics allow a lot of thermal energy to pass through the fabric because they are lighter in weight with open weaves. Although these fabrics do not ignite, they have a higher degree of body burn when tested on a thermal mannequin, yet the manufacturer can correctly advertise them as flame resistant.

A number of different tests, standards and regulations exist to measure the performance of fabrics for specific industries. These are minimum standards that need to be met in order to be considered for that market. Because there are no performance standards for tactical uniforms relating to what level or durability for flame resistance needs to be met, it is important to know what standards a garment meets and to interpret what information is relevant to these potential hazards.

For example, there are several fabrics available in the market stated to self-extinguish when tested to ASTM D6413. ASTM D6413 is a vertical flame test method that fabrics must be subjected to in order to be defined as flame resistant for protective clothing, but the test method reveals no information on how the fabric will perform in a particular thermal event. Information on how long the fabric will be flame resistant or how insulating the fabric is to a thermal event is not defined under ASTM D6413.

Flame-resistant fabrics are designed to protect against momentary hazards such as arc flash, molten metal splash and flash fire hazards. A fabric that performs well in one or more of these thermal events may not perform as well in a different type of momentary exposure. Therefore, using data for one type of thermal event to another does not ensure performance.

The greatest exposure to a tactical operator is probably flash fire, for example, exposure to an exploding meth cooker, an improvised explosive device or a flash-bang setting off a secondary accelerant such as propane gas. It makes sense to use a known standard to measure differences in thermal performance of fabrics to a flash fire hazard rather than reported protective performance to other hazards such as molten metal splash or arc flash.

The commercial market utilizes the NFPA 2112 standard and the ASTM F1930 test method to evaluate flame-resistant fabrics to this hazard. NFPA 2112 is the standard for flame-resistant garments for protection of industrial personnel against flash fire. Under the test method, flame-resistant fabrics are tested against a 2-calorie exposure over three seconds in which sensor-equipped mannequins are able to measure extent and severity of body burn.

When tested to this standard, experts find significant variance in performance of flame-resistant fabrics. A fabric can pass and be certified to NFPA 2112 as long as it measures less than 50% second and third degree burns. Two fabrics, for example one that tests to 49% body burn and a second fabric that tests to 10% body burn, both meet the performance requirements for NFPA 2112.

Due to the varied performance of fabrics, it is critical that your flame-resistant fabric choice be determined by proven industry consensus test methods at independent laboratories. The second critical piece in determining and specifying the flame-resistant fabric to be utilized by your organization is market- proven performance.

With the influx of generic and unproven fabrics, it is important to note when researching available fabrics for your tactical operators that the fabric manufacturer has a proven track record of performance.

Consider 1) the years of experience in flame-resistant fabrics, 2) the guaranteed flame resistance for the life of the garment, 3) the demonstrated dedication to continually test and certify FR fabrics, 4) the involvement in industry committees, 5) the availability of technical staff for training and to answer technical questions, 6) a government-certified test laboratory, and finally, 7) a proven track record with the emergency services.

In today’s tactical community, exposure to a flash fire through direct or indirect means can result in a garment fire and significant injury. The only way to protect operators from their tactical clothing catching fire during a thermal event is to make sure that the clothing is flame resistant.

When choosing flame-resistant clothing, it is essential that the fabric that garment is to be made from has a track record of proven performance in the conditions required to protect your officers. Specifying what fabric the tactical garments are to be made from should be the first and most important step in the process of defining your tactical uniform.

Derek Sang is the Western Region market manager with Westex Inc. (www.westexinc.com). He can be reached at dsang@westexinc.com.

Published in Tactical Response, Sep/Oct 2009

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