Industry Insights: More on Changing to Black PPE

Editor's note: Industry Insights are sponsored blogs submitted by manufacturers and suppliers serving the fire service industry.

Earlier this year we wrote a blog  to promote awareness and educate fire departments thinking about switching from a gold or lighter colored outer shell to a black outer shell; many departments who make the switch aren’t prepared for the color changes that occur. The purpose of the blog wasn’t meant to promote switching to a black outer shell nor suggest that departments don’t switch to a black outer shell as some had commented. The fact is there are departments every year who switch to a black outer shell and after color changes occur request the outer shells be replaced for free; they say the industry hasn’t done enough to educate the fire service about the color changes. For that reason we will run this blog again with a few changes and updates.

The first time we wrote a blog on this subject it was one of the most read articles on Firehouse.com. The reason it was shared so much is simple: black outer shells are one of the more controversial topics within the fire service.

Those who prefer wearing black outer shells or like the idea of a black outer shell do so because of a host of reasons. There was a study by one department that reported visibility is better with black outer shells because the contrast between the trim and a black outer shell is greater than the contrast between the trim and a lighter colored outer shell (think afternoon response to a vehicle accident on the highway). There are firefighters who like the fact that some black outer shells discolor when the gear is exposed to heat and the color change from the thermal hit is more likely to cause an inspection for damage to the moisture barrier or outer shell. Some like the fact that dirt and stains don’t show up on black outer shells as easily as lighter colored outer shells. There are firefighters who think black outer shells are more traditional and of course tradition is a major part of the fire service culture. One final point to mention here is the fact that many firefighters think black outer shells look cool. This “cool factor” is the main reason the topic of black outer shells is controversial.

Those who aren’t fans of black outer shells have reasons that are completely opposite to many of the points above. Many firefighters don’t like the idea of black outer shells discoloring from a thermal hit because they believe the discolored gear creates a bad image in public (keep in mind the color change from a thermal hit only occurs once and if a black patch isn’t put over the affected area the advantage of an indicator is only realized once in the many years the gear is in service). Some don’t like the fact that dirt doesn’t show up as easily because they want to know when and where the gear is dirty (carcinogens) as the gear is more likely to be cleaned when needed. Finally, back to the reason the topic is controversial, some firefighters don’t like the idea that image and the “cool factor” is any part of the decision making process for PPE.

Taking a few points from the blog written earlier this year, for a fire department wanting to make a switch to a black outer shell it is very important to conduct a full wear trial evaluation (wear it, wash it, wear it some more, wash it some more). Also, take a look at black turnout gear in fire departments from the surrounding area. Remember that it doesn't matter which black textile fabric is specified and it doesn't matter which garment manufacturer makes the gear, the color changes in black outer shells are going to occur and the fire department needs to be prepared for those color changes.

The primary factors causing a change in color is washing, UV light, and thermal exposure. These changes will happen in any dyed outer shell (yellow, khaki, etc.), but black outer shells seem to get the most attention as color changes are more noticeable due to the higher contrast from new to “worn”. Also, keep in mind that the color change alone does not mean the performance (protection/durability) is compromised.

As a textile company we don’t care which color outer shell the fire department chooses. What we do care about is making sure the fire department is happy with its purchase and raising awareness of the color changes will help in this process.

Is your department currently wearing a black outer shell? If so, please share your experiences...good or bad in the comment section below. Be safe and good luck if you are one of those who decide to make the switch.

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