New turnout gear built from advanced materials keeps more firefighters safe

Technology |  3 min. read

Vintage engraving of showing the uniforms of mid 19th century firemen

So yes, things have changed a bit in firefighting gear (firefighters call it “turnout gear”) since the 19th century.  And those changes have been for the good – thanks in large part to materials made from petrochemicals.

So when we say in “large part”, we mean it.

Take a firefighter’s helmet, for instance.

(Photo from National Museum of American History, Behring Center)

That’s what it looked like in 1870 – long brim in the back, made of leather, and yes, that’s a little statue of a fireman on top.  Undoubtedly cool, but not much help if you’re going inside a burning building (and in fact, in the old days, firefighters generally didn’t go inside burning buildings).

So that modern helmet, which can be built from fiberglass (glass fiber embedded in epoxy, which starts with the petrochemical, propylene) or from plastics like polycarbonate (again starting with propylene and benzene) – and inside that helmet, there can be protective foam (in case something drops on your head inside a burning building), foam made from polyurethanes that are made from petrochemicals like benzene and toluene.

With the modern helmet, comes a modern protective mask – airtight, thanks to high-tech, synthetic rubbers, such as ethylene-propylene-diene monomer (EPDM), made with the petrochemicals ethylene, propylene, butadiene and cyclopentadiene; or, Hycar®, a polyacrylate-based copolymer that starts with propylene.  The facepiece can be connected up with a backpack air tank made out of high-grade, fiber-reinforced epoxy resin (our building block propylene again).  The early version of this?  An asbestos mask (yes, asbestos), covered with an iron (yes, metal) mesh mask.

That massive upgrade applies to the rest of a firefighter’s gear too, as you move from the head down.

A 19th century illustration of a fireman in full uniform and helmet stood on a wooden ladder wielding his axe as he attempts to fight a fire. Flames are all around him. Taken from 'Scattered Seed and Good News of 1892.

Back in the old days, a firefighter’s coat was – well, just a coat.  Wool was the preferred material, with rubber added at some point.  Better than everyday street clothes (which, in fact, is what firefighters wore in the earliest days.  Early uniforms were just for show.) – but not a lot of protection there.

Today, firefighters’ gear is built in layers – tough enough to protect against flames and heat, at temperatures up to 500° Fahrenheit – long enough for a firefighter to get into a burning building and get someone inside out to safety. And that same gear also keeps a firefighter dry, amidst all that water from the hoses.

The ingredients start with petrochemicals – like benzene and xylene, which are used in making the protective aramid-fiber outer layers – and also the starting points for the aramid batting that provides additional thermal protection.  Like the benzene or toluene that makes the polyurethane film that keeps the water out – and like butadiene, which goes into making flexible fabrics like Spandex, that make all this protective gear comfortable and wearable.

And in the old days, firefighters brought their own gloves (leather), and pulled on a pair of rubber boots.  Today, a firefighter’s hands and feet get that same high tech, petrochemical-based protection, like the aramid fibers from benzene and xylene that go into the rest of their gear.

What does all that add up to?  Life-saving protection.  Here’s Fireman Dan’s story – the story of what happened when he fell through the floor of a burning building, first to his waist, then to his armpits.  What saved him from serious burns (he didn’t get any) until his fellow firefighters could drag him out – was the protection of his high-tech, petrochemical-built turnout gear.

And that – is the story of how petrochemicals help keep the men and women safe, who keep us safe when a fire breaks out.