Sadly many European cities are at risk of chemical, biological and radiological terrorist attacks. The EU-funded IF REACT project has developed innovative personal protective equipment (PPE) to ensure that first responders are better prepared. The new equipment can be manufactured as soon as orders start arriving.
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The men and women who work to save and protect citizens in the event of a terrorist attack can now wear clothing and equipment that make it easier to do their jobs safely and efficiently. “In addition to protecting them from harmful gases and substances, the new PPE feels to first responders almost as if they were working in their regular uniforms,” explains the scientific coordinator of IF REACT, Catherine Bertrand.
Although it was the threat of terrorist attacks that drove the EU’s investment in IF REACT, European cities are also at risk from other types of threat, such as pandemic outbreaks, accidents and other incidents involving dangerous substances. IF REACT considered all types of threat when evaluating existing PPE and developing more advanced equipment.
Improving on current equipment
Traditionally, much of the PPE available for first responders has been manufactured for the military, but other emergency workers, such as firefighters, police and medical personnel, have specialised and diverse requirements. They have a broader range of body sizes, are more likely to have different hair lengths or wear glasses than members of the military, for example. IF REACT researchers evaluated existing PPE in terms of these needs through lab testing and mock scenario simulations in field exercises.
Unfortunately, procurement officers often order PPE based on price, and not on an in-depth understanding of what the end-users require in the field, says Bertrand. “As a result, in many organisations there is large gap between what end-users really need in order to do their jobs effectively and the equipment they receive,” she explains.
To address this, IF REACT developed new PPE and an online procurement tool that takes users through factors such as threats and tasks in order to determine the most appropriate equipment for individual first response teams.
More comfort, less distraction, more lives saved
The project has developed several pieces of equipment including:
- a highly efficient ‘bio-collector’ to monitor potential contamination based on level of exposure (for example to the ebola virus);
- three types of protective clothing or ‘suits’ adapted to different levels of first responder work (heavy duty, light weight and undergarment);
- two types of respiratory protection (gas mask and over pressure hood with either filter or powered air supply)
- a balaclava to achieve a perfect fit between mask and suit;
- five different add-ons, such as an audio set and a smartphone communication.
Mix and match to safety needs
The protective suits are combined with the respiratory protection and add-ons into seven different protective ensembles that provide a variety of protective levels and operational possibilities.
All three suits are made of breathable material, making them more physiologically appropriate. The equipment is safe and comfortable to wear for twice as long as existing PPE, even in hot environments. “Increased comfort also helps first responders feel less psychologically stressed or distracted,” adds Bertrand.
Emergency workers wearing the new suits can talk to their colleagues in the control centre without having to hold a phone in their hands; they are connected even when they are placed in challenging situations. Also, “The new suits integrate audio-visual devices and smartphones, which is a huge improvement over the walkie-talkie radios most first responders use now,” as Bertrand points out – they enable the wearers to work hands-free. The audio-visual devices are available and affordable, says Bertrand.
And it is not only the first responders themselves who benefit from the new equipment. “Their high visibility means that victims know help has arrived, while a large visor also means that those caught up in an incident can more easily see who is inside the suit, which can help reduce their feelings of stress,” explains Bertrand.
If there is demand for significant volumes of the IF REACT prototypes, manufacturers will be able to produce the state-of-the art PPE cost-effectively. “Security experts and decision makers in government need to push for the procurement of the new PPE to create a safer Europe” Bertrand concludes.
The project’s potential has already been recognised in France – the project was one of 12 nominated as a ‘star of Europe’ in 2013.