KANBrief 4/16

Smart protective clothing: firefighters' opinions

Smart clothing is in vogue. There is no shortage of ideas, but implementation and standardization are still in their infancy. This presents an opportunity for the expectations, experiences and suggestions of the intended users to be surveyed and to be given consideration from the outset during development of standards. KAN has conducted a workshop with firefighters that is intended to do just that – and which can also serve as a blueprint for other topics.

Jackets with hands-free communication devices, sensors with position reporting, air-conditioned clothing, health monitoring systems with automatic emergency call function – the list of ideas and scope for application is endless. Numerous manufacturers are currently developing items of protective equipment that combine traditional PPE (personal protective equipment) with smart sensor and data transfer modules and that hold the promise of greater safety for Germany's firefighters, who number over a million.

The first products have already been presented at trade fairs and are available for purchase. Harmonized technical specifications are now needed in order to guarantee that these products function reliably and do in fact raise the existing level of protection. A European Commission standardization mandate is currently being discussed that is intended to lead to standards for smart PPE ( see also  KANBrief 1/16) for protection against heat and flames.

Involvement of all relevant users
Users are a stakeholder group that is generally represented exceptionally sparsely on standards committees, despite being able to contribute particularly valuable opinions and experience. KAN aims to help close this gap, and is exploiting its close contacts to employers' and employees' bodies and to the prevention departments of the accident insurance institutions for this purpose.

The workshop held in June 2016 was attended by product users drawn from full-time, company and voluntary fire services. The accident insurance institutions at which the firefighters are insured were also represented, as were the research departments of the German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) and the Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the DGUV (IFA).

Less is more – and no gimmicks please
Some fire services have heard of smart protective equipment or have encountered it at trade fairs or on training courses. Few of them have already had personal experience of such products, however. The general conclusion of the workshop was that the additional functions must always enhance safety. Gimmicks and the excessive collection of data are two things that must be avoided. The workshop yielded a wealth of concrete suggestions:


  • Less is more" is the motto when it comes to presentation of the data to the wearer. He or she can otherwise be rapidly overloaded with information that either distracts from the principal task, or is simply ignored.

  • Wearers want to trigger the display of certain data themselves.

  • An important concern is that the systems should not collect and store the wearer's biometric data continuously or by default.


  • Users wish to have systems that can be adapted flexibly to the deployment scenario in question. It should be possible for items of protective equipment to be fitted with suit-able sensors on a case-by-case basis.
  • Owing to their experience in burning buildings, the workshop participants challenged the concept of a wireless link between sensors on the protective equipment and a central control point. They pointed out that even obtaining a stable wireless voice connection frequently proves difficult during deployments.
  • Data on the condition of the protective equipment after an assignment could be very useful: what form of cleaning is required, and is the level of protection still assured?


  • All supplementary functions must function reliably at a high level. Facility must be provided for testing them prior to a deployment.
  • The equipment must be practical and ergonomic in its operation.
  • Its care and maintenance must not entail substantial additional effort.
  • Users must be fully informed regarding the mode of operation and the functions and limits of the smart elements.

Incorporating the results into standards
The breadth of the results shows that the users have a positive view of this method of gathering experience. Standards developers are called upon to involve experts from the field closely in the formulation of relevant requirements. 

Dr. Michael Thierbach