Are we at the technological limit for fire gloves?

There are numerous demands from the fire service and promises from manufacturers, but in many cases things are not working out as expected or promised


By Mike McKenna

The recent media attention on The Glove Corp. Blaze Fighter structural gloves again raises the question about what is "practical" and appropriate when it comes to the trade-off between thermal protection and dexterity in structural gloves.

As the chairman of the NFPA 1971 Task Group on Gloves, I hear many comments about gloves. Some are related to specific models, but they are generally about the newer, tighter fitting styles. I covered the issue in a previous column, but with the recent developments it seems timely to discuss the issue again.

What if the structural glove manufacturers are at the technological limit on their ability to provide higher dexterity while maintaining thermal protection for structural firefighting? What if this is the best the fire service can expect from the current material technologies?

There are numerous demands from the fire service and promises from manufacturers, but in many cases things are not working out as expected or promised.

Always a complaint
What if the fire service has "demanded" itself into a corner? In much of my 32 years of service, glove dexterity was always a complaint, but never a "problem". Thermal protection of the gloves was rarely exceeded. Structure gloves were what they were.

Then, a few years ago, tighter fitting structural gloves with new, stretchy textiles and thinner leather were introduced. Firefighters now had a taste of improved dexterity, and the more dexterous structure glove market exploded.

Firefighters were searching for and purchasing these new, more dexterous gloves, but with them came some faint whispers of hot hands. Glove manufacturers had a new market for structure gloves and radical new designs began arriving, combining new textile fabrics with thinner exotic leathers, offering more dexterity. and dexterity became a “problem”.

NFPA 1971 was the minimum performance requirement, and the technical committee struggled to balance the fire service demand for more dexterity with thermal protection.

Manufacturers from overseas, many of whom had no previous involvement in the fire glove market, began introducing gloves, bypassing years of American fire glove production experience and sidestepping participation in NFPA 1971.

The structural fire glove market exploded with promises of more dexterity, and thermal protection took a back seat. Hot hand complaints continued but the fire service demand was about dexterity — provided that gloves remained as thermally protective as they had been.

What if the fire service was and is asking too much from their gloves, given the technology currently available? What are the most important functions that need to be met by structure gloves? The job hasn't really changed too much over the past few years — do our gloves really need to?

Lower the bar?
Changing the channels on a radio is never going to be easy in structure gloves, but we can still run a power saw. Is the fire service willing to lower the bar on thermal protection for better dexterity, and deal with hot hands and burns?

The issue now is whether the fire service is ready and willing to fully educate its members about thermal saturation and limitations of gloves. If more instruction is given on the limitations of PPE, especially gloves, there's a chance we would see less burn injuries.

There's a valid question as to whether some of the dexterous glove designs are really that new when you strip away some of the exotic leathers and colors and find older glove patterns with designed air space and new thinner materials that are bulked up just enough to pass NFPA 1971. What happens when the firefighter is able to stretch that old patterned glove over his hand because of new fabrics and thinner leathers, reducing the real world thermal protection?

The thermal protection of our garments, helmets and boots remains as strong as it has ever been, which means the fire service needs to be diligent in ensuring that ever-thinner gloves don’t become the weakest link in a firefighter's PPE. So where do we draw the line on dexterity and thermal protection? If the consensus from the fire service is to accept a more dexterous glove, then firefighters need to be educated about the potential tradeoff.

An alternative is that we move back towards a more thermally protective glove and learn to live with the limitations, the ones that have always been there but only seemed bothersome after we developed a taste for the dexterous structural glove.

Certainly having improved dexterity and thermal protection is a worthy and admirable goal, and it may be achievable. But for now, we need to be confident that it’s not realistic given current technologies before adopting new products en masse. We must ask ourselves where the line between thermal protection and dexterity falls, and be prepared to accept that we may not be able to have both. .

Note: The NFPA 1971 Technical Committee through the Task Group on Gloves is actively working on performance requirements that balance the fire service demand for dexterity and the need for thermal protection. The Conductive Heat Test that is related to this situation is an example of a test method that was put into NFPA 1971 during the last revision cycle to try an address the compression found when structural gloves are worn and used in real world situations. It proves that there can be a direct relationship between test methods and real world firefighting.

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