Inside the Bunker Selection Process

From the personal protective equipment e-Newsletter, sponsored by

By Tim Durby

This article examines one method of selecting bunker gear. The goal is to open up the process and take a fair look at different manufacturers' products. The method presented here is the process recently used by the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department and developed and administered by the Phoenix Fire Department Labor/Management Protective Clothing Committee (PFD PCC).

We made every effort to make this as fair and unbiased as possible. The names of bunker gear manufacturers are intentionally omitted. If you choose to select your bunker gear using a similar evaluation, consider that publishing the winners and losers could bias your unbiased evaluators.

History

Always wanting to provide the best bunker gear on the market to our members, PFD has used several different manufacturers over the years. We took the best features from previous manufacturers' contracts and added them to the requirements for the next contract. Ideas that were developed and proved important also were added. Each of the materials or feature requirements were added after experiences and thorough evaluations by PFD. Every specification has been cumulative. We added features or materials and tightened requirements every contract. Up until the year 2002, we used a minimum specification that all manufactures could meet (if they wanted to) and selected the lowest bid on gear that met all of the requirements. In 2002, we added some materials that were only available through one manufacturer. We felt these materials were important enough to limit the next contract to a single manufacturer.

It has been several years since we limited the contract to one manufacturer. Other manufacturers have made significant improvements to patterns and materials. Our PFD PCC met and felt these improvements might meet or exceed our current contract manufacturer. It was decided that we would open up the specification and include a performance evaluation within the Request For Proposal (RFP).

Risk and Needs Assessment

In our Risk and Needs Assessment, we determined that our current balance of thermal stability, thermal protection, and breathability was good. Reducing heat stress is important to our firefighters' heath and safety. Improvements in freedom of movement can reduce heat stress.

Set Goals

The following goals were established:

  • To find the best bunker gear available for the PFD members

  • Select the best combination of materials and patterns, including improvements to freedom of movement

  • Create a process that will be open to all manufacturers while requiring some important features and materials that have proven to be the best in the industry and the PFD

Process

We wrote a minimum specification for the RFP. This specification included required features, such as a pleated back/shoulder, a reversed storm flap, a drag rescue device, special pockets, and other important features. The required materials included PBI Matrix as the outer shell, Crosstech moisture barrier, leather knees and leg cuffs, and other requirements. We set the minimum Thermal Protective Performance (TPP) at 40 and the minimum Total Heat Loss (THL) at 270. All manufacturers would have to meet the minimum requirements. This should create a level playing field.

We then developed a performance evaluation to rate fit, function, physical performance, while factoring in bid price. We felt this was comprehensive and captured the benefits of three different types of selection: A detailed specification, a performance evaluation, and low bid price. City of Phoenix Purchasing sent out the RFP to vendors. The specifications and instructions were all included in the RFP, as well as a Prebid Conference date.

RFP Prebid Conference

The City of Phoenix Purchasing facilitated the Prebid conference. The Prebid is to explain and answer questions from vendors and manufacturers regarding the minimum specifications. The vendors and manufacturers then received the RFP solicitation close date, giving them time to make the bid sample set of gear.

Bid Package and Sample Due

The Protective Clothing Committee reviewed all bid samples. The City of Phoenix Purchasing kept the sealed bids until the end of the process. The committee set the dates and times for fittings of the evaluation sets.

Evaluation Sets

The PFD PCC selected six unbiased evaluators for the performance evaluation. The evaluators were not allowed any contact with vendors and manufactures except for the scheduled fitting. The vendors and manufactures were allowed 15 minutes per evaluator for fitting. No sale presentations or discussions were allowed, outside of what is necessary for fitting.

With a reasonable time to make the evaluation sets, a deadline date was set. The manufacturers were told not to put names, trademarks, or logos on the outside of the evaluation sets.

All evaluation sets were received before the deadline. Every set was inspected to ensure that there were no manufacturer names or trademarks on the gear, including logos on suspender buttons. To have an equal starting point for the evaluation, we preconditioned all the sets to break in and remove any surface treatments. The preconditioning was washing five times each in a front-load washing machine and dried with forced air, no heat. All the sets were labeled with a letter to disguise the actual manufacturer. Throughout the process, the manufacturer names were withheld from all the evaluators.

Performance Evaluations

Fit And Function. All six evaluators tested all the different sets, one set each day at the same time so that fatigue and weather would not be factors. Weather conditions were similar for all testing days. In both the skills course and the live burns, the different sets were evenly mixed up so that being the first or last day was not a factor. Because using evaluators is a subjective process, we were very careful to make every test as equal as possible and remove variables.

The skills course and live burns were weighted the heaviest in the overall scores.

Skills Course. This is a series of 10 events that represent most of the types of activities firefighters perform while wearing their bunker gear. The evaluators wore their SCBA without their face pieces during the skills course evaluation. Firefighting is very strenuous, so reducing physical exertion and heat stress is important to the health and safety of each firefighter. This evaluation gave us a realistic test for freedom of movement.

The evaluators were given instructions to perform the tasks the same way and at the same speed each time. To prevent them from racing themselves each day, they were held at each task for set period of time. After each task, they rated the coat and the pants from 1-9 (1 was poor, 5 average, and 9 excellent). A monitor recorded their verbal rating after each event. After all events, the evaluator reviewed and signed the results.

Live Fire Burns. Evaluating all samples in live fire conditions (equally) is essential for a good comparison. It is very difficult to create and maintain live burns so that the temperature and condition for each live burn is the same, so we used temperature probes on the walls and the fire starters were careful to maintain similar conditions.

The evaluators had specific tasks to perform inside and a set time at each task. It is important to note that all NFPA and safety procedures were followed.

Fit. Proper fit in the areas of common burns will reduce burns drastically. Inferior patterns tend to not fit properly in these critical areas: Function of back/shoulder pleat, fit in upper arm, and fit in thigh.

Access to tools in pockets is important while wearing bunker gear. The manufacters does not always position pockets with the wearing of the SCBA in mind; the lower strap can cover the lower coat pockets and make it difficult to access tools. This evaluation was performed with the SCBA in place and tools put in all of the coat pockets.

The following evaluations were conducted. The City of Phoenix Purchasing monitored all the evaluations.

Physical Performance (Lab testing)
TPP (Thermal Protective Performance): Independent Lab
THL (Total Heat loss): Independent Lab
CCHR (Conductive Compressive Heat Resistance): Independent Lab
WR (Water Retention): PFD Test
LW (Leg Wicking): PFD Test
HWK (Hot Wet Knee): PFD Test
SWG (Sweat Weight Gain): PFD Test

After all the evaluations were complete, they were tabulated and then purchasing opened the bids and added the rating for price.The City of Phoenix Purchasing and the PFD PCC reviewed all the evaluations. The highest rated bidder was awarded the contract.

The specifications and the evaluations in the actual process are much more detailed than this condensed version. If you have specific questions, please contact me: Tim.b.durby@phoenix.gov.

Tim Durby is a captain with the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department; he's been with the department for 25 years. He has been the program manager for PFD Research & Development for five years, the PPE and protective clothing program manager for 10 years, and the fire department facilities manager for one year. He was on the technical committee for NFPA 1971 and 1851 for eight years, and won the PFD's Outstanding Safety Performance Award in 2006.

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