NFPA 1977 Certified Wildland Clothing | Why Certified PPE is Important
The Wildland Clothing Market is Specialized
The wildland clothing market is largely supplied by a very small group of reputable clothing manufacturers who provide their customers with these protective garments. The products made by this subset of PPE manufacturers go through extensive field-testing and/or wear trials by firefighters themselves. They are also backed by a 3rd-party clothing certification by Underwriters Laboratory (UL) to meet or exceed the performance requirements of NFPA 1977.
This nationally recognized performance standard covers the Protective Clothing and Equipment used for Wildland Fire Fighting, or more commonly referred to as NFPA 1977.
Why an NFPA Certification Matters
From time to time (particularly in times of crisis like the 2020 fire season), other lesser known garment brands often “pop up” with the intention to sell non-certified garments that are claimed to be perfectly safe PPE (Personal Protective Equipment).
However, purchasing non-certified garments can be a risky proposition.
Wildland clothing is not just workwear clothing or garments that are made with the sole purpose of durability. In fact, this clothing is designed to protect its wearer, or even potentially save a life. It provides a similar function to that of the airbag in a vehicle. Simply put, if your wildland clothing does not do its job correctly you as the end user could wind up getting hurt, or worse in the event of exposure to the flame and thermal hazards associated with fighting a wildfire.
Why do These Manufacturers Cut Corners?
The overriding purpose of the NFPA 1977 certification standard is to help ensure that firefighting garments (and gear) consistently meet a set of minimum performance requirements. Without that certification, suppliers are essentially selling a product that does not meet the minimum safety requirements for the job, leaving the wearer unprotected and at greater risk of injury.
There can be several reasons why a manufacturer could take this short cut approach.
1) The certification of wildland clothing to NFPA 1977 is both a time consuming and expensive process
The cost of NFPA certification can amount to more than several thousands of dollars annually, per garment type. In addition to the extra cost, NFPA 1977 garment certification takes time, typically several months for an established manufacturer and sometimes significantly longer if a new company is seeking certification for a factory for the 1st time.
2) The manufacturer is likely using lower-cost materials
In addition to the longer time and cost required to earn garment certification, by avoiding the certification process, a manufacturer may also elect to use lower cost garment components or less-than-standard garment construction techniques. The NFPA 1977 standard has very stringent requirements that govern every single individual fabric, trim, button, snap, thread type, and even governs the measurement specifications for the garment to help ensure fire fighter safety and protection.
Let's Recap - The Risks of Buying "Non-Certified" Garments
Purchasing non-certified wildland clothing comes with a number of safety risks attached:
- Non-Certified likely means subpar construction techniques. This can include things like seams that don’t meet the seam strength test associated with NFPA 1977.
- Non-Certified could mean that non-NFPA 1977 compliant trims have been used in making the garment. These may fail when exposed to prolonged heat or flame.
- Non-Certified could mean that the garment was built in a factory that does not have a robust quality system such as ISO 9001.
- Non-Certified means that any of the performance testing requirements for the garment and materials has not been certified and possibly not met either.
How does a Garment become NFPA 1977 Certified?
The NFPA 1977 protective clothing standard dates back to over 30 years ago when its development began in 1989. Over this time frame, it has gone through multiple revisions and improvements to make it more relevant and robust.
For a garment to be NFPA 1977 compliant, all of the materials used in a garment and the garment construction itself have specific performance requirements based on widely recognized industry test methods and procedures — The NFPA 1977 wildland standard is very robust is in regard to the design requirements for the product.
When certifying a garment, there are a series of minimum specifications for construction on both the size of the garment for various measurements coupled with the type of sewing construction that must be used. Along with flame resistant thread, all garment sewing seams must meet a minimum strength requirement which is much higher than what is typical in recreational clothing.
This helps to ensure both freedom of movement and garment integrity (protection from tears and broken seams) in the event the wearer must take evasive action while fighting a wildfire or is exposed to direct contact with flames.
Garment closures such as the shirt collar, shirt cuffs, and pant closures, waist measurements, inseams and other garment points of measure must also meet performance specifications. Non-certified 1977 garments may use certified fabric for the body of the garment, but it is questionable whether all of the other components of the garment are acceptable under the NFPA 1977 standard.
What are some Components of NFPA 1977 Testing?
NFPA 1977 requires that every fabric, label, thread, reinforcement, binding, emblem, hook/loop (i.e. Velcro®), elastic, and pocket lining be individual tested for flame resistance to help prevent the personally injury that made result if these fabrics and components were to melt, drip, or have extended after-flame when directly exposed to a wildfire. All buttons, zippers and closures must also remain functional after flame exposure.
Additionally, the body fabrics used in the garment must have RPP values (Radiant Protective Performance) of no less than 7 while they are also tested for thermal resistance with the Total Heat Loss standardized test.
To understand the significance or RPP values, you can read more about them here.
Next, the fabrics are exposed to high heat, roughly ~500 degrees F in order to simulate a wildfire environment. As a result, the garment must not shrink more than 10%. Body fabrics also must have an expected vertical flame char length of 4 inches or less when exposed to a burner for 12 seconds.
In addition to the many performance requirements of NFPA 1977, there are also safety and quality safeguards which are directly linked to garment certification. Every certified NFPA 1977 clothing or gear product type is sent to the 3rd party auditor every year for inspection and review to maintain its certification. The same is true for the certified components and fabrics used to construct the product.
Every factory that produces NFPA 1977 certified products receives an unscheduled production facility audit quarterly from UL or the 3rd party auditing company to ensure the manufacturer is in full compliance with the NFPA 1977 standard.
In summary, there are many standardized tests that are part of NFPA 1977 which focus on the flame resistance from the body fabric all the way down to the sewing thread and even the stitching used to construct the garment.
How do I Make Sure that my Clothing is NFPA 1977 Certified?
As an buyer, the simplest way to check to see if a garment is NFPA compliant is to check inside for a tag with the following:
“This wildland protective garment meets the requirements of NFPA 1977, standard on protective clothing and equipment for wildland firefighting”.
If that exact wording does not appear in the garment or if NFPA 1977 certification is not clearly stated in the advertising for wildland clothing, this should serve as a red flag to the consumer. Additionally, most manufacture websites will clearly state if their wildland products are NFPA 1977 certified.
The end user can rest assured - if they are buying a NFPA 1977 certified product from a proven trusted manufacturer they are getting what they paid for. In the event of an emergency, this decision can make a difference, and potentially a lifesaving one.