New material meets national standards

After weeks of study, the Charleston Fire Department has selected new uniforms that are expected to provide greater protection than the 100 percent polyester garb currently worn by its ranks.

Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said the new uniforms, made from a blend of cotton and fire-resistant material, meet national standards written to protect firefighters.

Polyester uniforms don't meet those standards, which is why many departments abandoned them years ago. Polyester uniforms, worn underneath a firefighter's outer protective bunker gear, can melt and liquefy under high heat and complicate burn injuries. Cotton-based uniforms singe and char when burned.

Thomas said he followed the recommendations of a Fire Department committee in choosing the new uniforms, which look a lot like the old uniforms. The choice also echoes recommendations made by a panel of fire experts hired by the city to study the department after the June 18 Sofa Super Store blaze that killed nine firefighters, he said.

The new uniforms are widely used and fully comply with National Fire Protection Association standards, said Bill Spangler, regional sales representative for the manufacturer, Flying Cross by Fechheimer. "This (material) will not melt," he said.

Thomas said the city hopes to order the uniforms next week, with delivery

expected about six weeks after that. Local businessman Gene Reed donated about $230,000 to pay for the uniforms.

Firefighters will be allowed to wear T-shirts around station houses, while duty shirts will be required for special events, such as school visits. They will be given pullover "job shirts" and a choice of high-top zippered boots instead of patent leather shoes, Thomas said.

"This is what they wanted," he said. "They want to be comfortable around the stations."

Not everyone was happy with the final choice.

Capt. Jamie Greene, a 20-year veteran who served on the uniform committee, said the panel presented the rank and file with choices about a month ago. Firefighters voted overwhelmingly to switch to polo shirts, which offered comfort and a more professional look than T-shirts. Thomas rejected that recommendation and pushed the committee to adopt the T-shirts and other changes, Greene said.

The Charleston Firefighters Association had pushed the department for years to ditch the polyester, but commanders liked the tight creases and professional look of the synthetic material.

Roger Yow, president of the local firefighters' union, said the new uniforms are a "100 percent improvement over what we had before, which was just plain dangerous. But we're also disappointed that they really haven't listened to the choices of the committee."

Mark Ruppel, the Fire Department's public information officer, said there may have been discussion on possible choices, but he reiterated that Thomas went with the final panel recommendations.

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or gsmith@postandcourier.com.