Military service members, firefighters and power industry workers regularly go into the line of duty outfitted in flame-resistant or fire-resistant (FR) clothing. Contractors have embraced innovative textiles to keep uniforms — and the people who wear them — safe. Here is a look at the occupational hazards that necessitate FR clothing and what FR uniforms must do.

Occupational risks

The mission of a firefighter necessitates clothing that can hold up to intense heat and raging flames. FR turnout gear and station wear must reliably offer high levels of thermal protection. But first responders are not the only brave professionals who require carefully engineered protective apparel.

Whether handling ammunition or withstanding enemy fire, the nation's military service members are constantly in harm's way. They need uniforms that enable them to do the work that must be done, without compromising their health and safety.

"The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.""The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement."

But, according to FR uniform manufacturer DRIFIRE, unsuitable textiles had been putting service members at risk. In 2007, two Marines were killed during a roadside bombing incident when their undergarments melted onto their skin. These garments were polyester — a plastic material which ignites, melts and drips when exposed to heat. Even when a uniform's outer layers are fire-resistant, improper base layers can still pose serious hazards. DRIFIRE notes that the U.S. Marines approached their company for a safer solution following this incident.

In the electric power industry, FR apparel is just as essential. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), the heat of an electric arc can exceed the surface temperature of the sun. Even a split-second blast can cause severe or fatal injuries. Combustible dust, flash fires and other unforeseen accidents mean that workers should be properly dressed at all times.

The role of fire-resistant clothing

Working hand-in-hand with OSHA, the Department of Defense and the National Fire Protection Association, the protective apparel industry has made significant strides since the early 2000s.

Workers facing heat, fire and electrical hazards are now required to wear FR clothing from head to toe, and from their undergarments to their outermost jackets. When layered properly, FR apparel provides a higher level of protection that is greater than what's offered by each individual piece.

For anyone serving in the armed forces, on an emergency response team or in the power industry, specialty clothing made from FR textiles is one important component of the personal protective equipment (PPE) that is worn.

For the greatest protection and comfort in the line of duty, fire-resistant uniforms should be:

  • Inherently flame-resistant, meaning that the FR properties will not wash away or wear out. Rather than being finished with an FR treatment, the fibers and weave structure must offer the flame resistance themselves.
  • Self-extinguishing to prevent the spread of fire, reduce the risk of burns and give workers time to return to safety. 
  • No-melt and no-drip to avoid bonding to the skin and causing severe burns.
  • Low-smoking and non-toxic to prevent smoke-related injuries as the garment self-extinguishes.
  • Slightly loose-fitting (but not excessively baggy) to create an insulating layer of air between each piece of clothing and the skin that helps resist the heat.
  • Comprehensive with different pieces that are worn together, from the undergarments, middle layers and outerwear to headgear, additional uniform components and weather-related accessories.
  • Moisture-wicking and fast-drying to help regulate body temperatures and keep workers as comfortable as possible in hot, stressful and physically demanding situations.
  • Antimicrobial to prevent the growth of bacteria inside the uniform.
  • Compliant with industry requirements.

Fibers that are prone to melting and dripping such as polyester, rayon, nylon and acetate are generally not utilized for FR clothing. Although natural fibers like cotton and wool will burn to ash rather than melt, they aren't entirely suitable either as they are not self-extinguishing.

Instead, companies in the protective apparel industry have developed and patented specialty textiles. These consist of a blend of unique fibers and innovative weave structures that meet the many demands of the field and keep service members and industry workers who wear FR clothing safe.