When I was in university, part of my training as a costume designer was studying costume history, including military costume/uniforms. My original plan in life was to be a men’s clothing designer, so naturally I was drawn to the lines, durability, and practicality of military uniforms. Uniforms worn by emergency services like fire and police follow a very logical design for very specific purposes, with safety at top of mind.
Earlier this year, I visited the Adelaide Street Fire Hall, the busiest station in Canada, because I was interested in what pieces make up the fire fighting uniform, what those pieces are made of, and what their purpose is. I was guided through the fire fighter uniform by Morgan Maschke, a fire fighter who impressed me with his textile knowledge – he seemed to know what materials were in every piece we looked at.
We started off by discussing “station fatigues”, the clothing worn at the fire hall and under any of the safety gear worn on fire calls. Firefighters wear shirts made of a strong and hard-wearing fabric blend – 65% cotton and 35% polyester, with an embroidered Toronto Fire Services patch on the sleeve, and epaulets on the shoulders (epaulets are ornamental shoulder pieces used in the military for decoration or to display insignia). Navy or white t-shirts are worn under the shirts, emblazoned with a Toronto Fire Services crest.
Station trousers are made of the same poly-cotton blend, but the fabric is a thicker and harder-wearing twill weave for long-lasting strength. Trousers are a flat front design (i.e. no pleats) and properly fitted to each firefighter. Morgan says “a good fit makes for a safer uniform”. A webbed nylon belt is worn with the trousers with a plain buckle.
Though Morgan had me going for a minute about firefighters wearing red thongs under their trousers, we got back on track and discussed underthings – undies of the individual’s choice, and socks of an 80% cotton and 20% nylon blend – the addition of nylon strengthens the cotton. It may seem that a sock should be more substantial, given the work these men do, but as I was to find out, there is much more protection to go over this base layer.
When firefighters go out on a call, their protective clothing is already set up, very much like the way backstage quick-changes are pre-set in the theatre – they just have to step into their boots and pull up their pants, then pull on their head gear and jackets on the truck. In emergency situations, time is of the essence and firefighters have their dressing down to a well-timed science.
Once he’s down the pole, the firefighter steps into his steel-toed boots, made of heavy rubber with a nail-proof sole. These boots are insulated with felt and Kevlar, an amazing textile that is extremely strong and heat resistant (more on Kevlar in a few weeks).
The legs of his fire pants, known as bunker pants, sit around each boot and are pulled up with suspenders. Pants have adjustable waistband buckles, close in the front with Velcro, feature cargo pockets to carry small tools, and have reflective tape stitched on for visibility in fires or at night. Firefighters are often crawling on the floor below the smoke of burning buildings, so their fire pants have thick pads made of 2 – 3 layers of Kevlar at the knees.
Once these are on, he can get on the truck and start driving. Bunker coats, helmets, and other items needed to do their job safely are stored in the cab of the fire truck. Bunker coats and pants are composed a thermal barrier of Kevlar and Nomex (another flame-resistant textile) with a water barrier, made to measure and available in short, regular, and tall, just like a man’s suit (remember, safety in fit). The Kevlar/Nomex material is woven in a plain basket weave of rough threads with a quilted layer inside.
The sleeves contain a fitted cuff to protect the wrist and the fleshy part of the hand. Presumably, this feature also acts to secure the sleeve to the firefighter. Over these, thick suede gloves with wooly, insulated lining to withstand extreme heat are worn.
Head gear and SCBA
The first piece to go on a firefighter’s head is a rather Medieval-looking hood, made of a flame-resistant and thermally stable fiber called PBI, Polygenzimidarole. The textile is woven in a fine rib that will not burn or melt, staying intact even if it is charred. The hood is designed to cover the head, the entire neck, upper chest, upper back, with a 5″ elasticized hole for the face.
Morgan put his fire helmet on me so I could feel the weight – a firefighter must have a strong neck to hold this 5 lb piece up for long periods of time, and as I discovered, I just don’t have the build for it, but Morgan’s strong, stocky Scottish frame does well to hold up the weight of the whole uniform.
He explained that after 911, the Toronto Fire Department joined in solidarity with the NYC Fire Department and adopted their helmet style. Each helmet is made of thick leather, completely adjustable for the individual wearer, with “jumbo” ear flaps, and is amazingly hand-made. Instead of a regal bald eagle, Toronto adopted Canada’s national emblem, the beaver, as their bronzed animal of choice affixed to the top of the helmet. A thick leather identification number sits at the front of the helmet, and a pull-down polycarbonate visor is attached to the sides. Learn more about the helmets here.
Firefighters sometimes need a supply of oxygen when working in burning buildings, and for this, they wear a SCBA, self-contained breathing apparatus. The SCBA consists of an aluminum tank of compressed oxygen wrapped in Kevlar, containing half an hour of air for normal breathing. The tank is attached to flame resistant shoulder straps and a waist belt with a seat belt-style buckle to secure it. The face piece is edged with synthetic rubber with and a clear polymer shield, and regulator clamps to both secure and fit it into place. To prevent condensation from breathing, nose and mouth caps fit inside of the face piece. Absolutely every inch of firefighter is covered.
It was a pleasure spending time at the Adelaide Fire Hall and learning about their uniforms. While I was there, I witnessed the brotherhood amongst the fire fighters – they had a pizza party that day, and a large group of them left the hall to visit one of their colleagues at a hospital who had been injured on the job. They live and work as a team; cooking, eating, and cleaning together, relying on each other for safety and efficiency in extremely dangerous conditions. Their highly-engineered uniforms help keep them safe and secure so they can confidently do one of the most dangerous jobs on earth. For more information about protective fire uniforms, see this DuPont page.
Thanks to the Toronto Fire Services South Command and special thanks to my guide, Morgan Maschke, of the Adelaide Street Fire hall. Next post will focus on uniforms of the Toronto Police Services.