Bunker Gear Guide: What Is It and How Does It Work?

Bunker gear, sometimes called turnout gear, is the personal protective equipment firefighters wear on the job. Bunker gear gets its name from the fact that this set of gear was historically kept at each firefighter's bunk at the fire station, ready for use when a call came in.

Bunker gear has come a long way since its humble beginnings in the early 1800s. Back then, firefighters fought blazes mainly from the outside. Modern firefighters must often brave much more brutal conditions within burning buildings in their efforts to save lives and minimize damage, and bunker gear or turnout gear has evolved as a result. Today's personal protective equipment (PPE) uses the latest technology to provide superior comfort and protection to firefighters in even the harshest environments.

How Does Bunker Gear Work?

The temperatures inside an average house fire can reach 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit or 815 degrees Celsius. While heat rises so it's always hottest toward the ceiling, temperatures near the floor can still reach several hundred degrees. Around a firefighter's eye level, heat is often 600 degrees Fahrenheit. Clearly, these are not conditions the human body is made to endure. How does bunker gear work to protect firefighters from conditions this severe?

Today's PPE uses a three-layer system to provide optimal protection from the dangers firefighters face. Essentially, the system includes an outer shell, a moisture barrier and the thermal layer or layers.

The National Fire Protection Association's NFPA 1971 establishes the minimum requirements the protective gear firefighters wearmust meet to ensure it works properly. It subjects gear to conditions like:

  • Flame test: This requirement determines how many seconds it takes for material to self-extinguish after direct exposure to flame.
  • Thermal protective performance (TPP): TPP measures how quickly heat transfers from the outside of the gear to the inside.
  • Total heat loss (THL): THL Measures how much heat can be transferred out of the gear through both sweat and conduction.
  • Transmitted and stored thermal energy test: This test measures the extent to which sleeve enhancements to turnout gear can store and transfer heat.
  • Heat and thermal shrinkage test: In this test conducted on both bunker gear and equipment, items subjected to heat are measured for shrinking, melting, dripping, separation and other situations that impede their function.
  • Conductive, compressive heat resistance (CCHR): Compression reduces the insulating quality of materials, such as what occurs at joints like the knees and elbows. Turnout gear is required to reach a minimum level of insulation in the knees and shoulders for that reason.

How Does Bunker Gear Work?

New bunker gear uses cutting-edge technology along with modern materials and the three-layer system to pass these and many other stringent tests.

What Is Bunker Gear?

Modern personal protective equipment for firefighters utilizes the three-layer system consisting of an outer shell, moisture barrier and a one-, two- or three-layer thermal barrier that protects the firefighter's body from extreme heat. Each of these pieces is important in its own right, but to be truly effective, turnout gear must function as a whole. Bunker gear or turnout gear usually refers to this PPE system in its entirety: 

1. Outer Shell

The outer shell is the firefighter's first line of defense against the hostile environments they will face — and those aren't limited to just heat and flame. The outer shell must also protect against water, dangerous chemicals and abrasions from any number of sharp objects firefighters encounter on the scene. Additionally, it must be strong but flexible enough to allow firefighters freedom of movement. 

Check these qualities when considering your PPE's outer shell: 

  • Flame resistance: The outer shell's primary function is to stand between the firefighter and open flame or burning embers. Flame resistance is usually measured by the limiting oxygen index (LOI) — the amount of oxygen the material needs to catch fire.
  • Embrittlement: This term refers to the breakdown of the outer shell, which eventually occurs no matter the flame resistance achieved. Ideally, you'll want a durable and flexible material that can last.
  • Dye sublimation: Dye in outer garments can dissipate at extreme heat levels and cause discoloration. Such discoloration doesn't automatically mean a piece of equipment is unfit to remain in service. But it provides an indication that the equipment should definitely be tested prior to further use.

In addition to protecting firefighters from flame and sharp objects, the outer shell critically protects the inner workings of bunker gear.

2. Moisture Barrier

The moisture barrier does double-duty when a firefighter is on the job:

  • Protects from dangerous liquids: This layer must protect the firefighter's skin from any number of hazardous liquids they might encounter while battling a blaze. Those substances include battery acid, swimming pool chemicals, antifreeze, fire-resistant hydraulic fluids and other hazardous substances. Since a fire can break out anywhere, including factories and other industrial environments, a firefighter can never be sure what they might be exposed to, and the moisture barrier offers protection. 
  • Wicks away moisture: The moisture barrier helps to lessen the intensity of extreme temperatures by wicking sweat away from the firefighter's body.

The moisture barrier is one of the most important parts of the three-layer turnout gear system, but it is also one of the most fragile. It must be tested and inspected on a regular basis to ensure it is operating at a sufficient level.

What Is Bunker Gear?

3. Thermal Barrier

The thermal barrier's main job is protecting firefighters from the extreme heat in the environment. Sometimes called the thermal liner, this aspect of a firefighter's personal protective equipment pairs with the moisture barrier to provide around 75% of the bunker gear's heat protection properties. It does this by trapping air between layers of nonwoven material. 

The ideal thermal barrier goes further by also offering moisture management and wickability, flexibility and a smooth feel for comfort against the face and skin. Manufacturers are increasingly turning to multiple layers of woven material to provide superior heat protection without sacrificing breathability.

What Is Bunker Gear Made Of?

Today's personal protective equipment utilizes scientific breakthroughs turn-of-the-century firefighters couldn't even imagine. Companies that manufacture the protective gear firefighters wear have pioneered the most effective materials and technology so each piece of turnout gear offers firefighters the highest level of protection. 

Bunker gear often consists of a combination of a jacket or coat, trousers, gloves, boots, hood, helmet and a self-contained breathing apparatus. While these elements work together, each piece serves a different purpose and is made from different materials.

Trousers and Coat

Kevlar is a popular material for constructing the outer shell of the coat, as are other fire-resistant materials such as aramid and Nomex. Nomex can carbonize and thicken in extreme heat, and this helps to prevent burns by increasing the barrier between the firefighter and the source of the flame. 

Many firefighters and fire chiefs swear by Nomex and Kevlar used in combination as the outer shell on coats and trousers. While Nomex boasts a high resistance to flame, Kevlar is extremely tough, lightweight and even offers a degree of thermal protection.

Trousers are often reinforced with leather along the cuffs and at the knees to provide another layer of protection and resist the expected wear and tear that comes with the job.

Other things to consider when choosing a turnout coat and trousers — possibly the most important parts of a set of bunker gear — include:

  • Visibility: Turnout coats and trousers are often brightly colored or include reflective strips so firefighters can see and be seen by their teammates and people in need under conditions that are frequently dark and smoky.
  • Storage: Jackets and trousers often come equipped with added space for firefighters to carry the tools of their trade and access them quickly and easily on the job.
  • Custom features: Companies that provide turnout gear and PPE to firefighters are increasingly realizing that bunker gear is not one-size-fits-all. Firefighters and fire chiefs select the gear best for their crew and their station based on a number of factors. Those factors can include the experience level of the crew, the types of calls the station receives and even the weather and climate of the area where the crew operates.

Boots

When floors can reach hundreds of degrees and smoke and debris can obscure the threat of puncture wounds and other injuries, foot protection is crucial. Leather construction — since leather is a fire-resistant material — and steel toe inserts are standard. Boots should also be water- and moisture-resistant, reflective and equipped with removable foot beds for comfort and hygiene.

Helmet

A firefighter's helmet is another piece of PPE that must perform a variety of roles by protecting against heat and flame and falling debris and other impacts that are common in active fire situations. 

Fortunately, technological advances have produced helmets that satisfy both requirements. While helmets vary slightly between manufacturers, they are usually made with a hard shell that often consists of plastic, fiberglass or carbon fiber to offer protection against impact without adding excess weight. They frequently include an additional Kevlar layer for added strength and are constructed with non-conductive material to avoid electric shock.

Hand Protection

In a job where visibility is often less than ideal, firefighters must ensure their hands are protected. They're at risk of burns, heat and the many other hazards they could encounter in an active fire, like dangerous chemicals, exposed wires and sharp objects. Firefighters are frequently reaching out to move hot or burning debris and to rescue people trapped in dangerous situations. As such, their gloves often feature layers of leather, Nomex and a breathable barrier.

It's also important to make sure there's plenty of overlap in gear so no skin is accidentally exposed. Firefighters are called on to face many situations beyond house fires, like car accidents, hazardous material spills, industrial accidents, riots and disturbances, marine accidents, terrorist incidents and much more. So, experienced firefighters often keep a variety of gloves and other gear on hand so they can be prepared for any situation they find themselves in when the alarm sounds.

Other Protective Gear

The items described above represent the basic pieces in most firefighters' bunker gear, but many situations — and sometimes personal preference derived from experience — necessitate a range of additional items, like:

  • Goggles and other eye protection: These require durable materials, like flame-resistant and shatterproof polycarbonate.
  • Hearing protection: Firefighter hearing protection ranges from earplugs to earmuff-style devices.
  • Flash hoods: These are made from Nomex knit, flame-retardant rayon or other flame-retardant materials, usually constructed in several layers and designed to be worn beneath the helmet.
  • A breathing apparatus: A self-contained breathing apparatus provides compressed air from a tank worn on the firefighter's back. They're often made of steel or aluminum.
  • Specialty gear: Specialty PPE can include a hazmat suit, a proximity suit made from reflective, metallic material to deflect the extreme heat of aircraft fires and similar situations or a personal flotation device for water rescues.
  • Turnout gear undergarments: Some firefighters prefer the superior cooling and wicking properties of synthetic fabrics. On the other hand, natural fibers like wool and cotton are far less likely to melt and adhere to the skin. Most undergarments, like other turnout gear, are made from a blend of strong, heat-resistant, synthetic aramid fibers and strengthening fibers like nylon or spandex.

What Is Bunker Gear Made Of?

Bunker Gear FAQs

Want to know more about bunker gear and the products and services Bunker Gear Specialists has to offer? Check these frequently asked questions below:

1. Why Rent Bunker Gear With BGS?

Many municipalities rent gear for training exercises, for new recruits waiting to receive their full set of equipment or for firefighters to use while their gear is being cleaned, tested or repaired.

2. What Does the Industrial Bunker Gear Rental From BGS Include?

Our industrial bunker gear rentals include coats, trousers, boots, suspenders, helmets and hoods.

3. How Does the Short-Term Rental Process Work?

BGS will deliver the equipment and pick it up when your department is finished with it. We fully assume the cleaning and maintenance of the equipment. We always have spare gear on hand in case the sizing information provided was incorrect or an additional trainee shows up.

4. What Areas Does BGS Equipment Rental Cover?

Most of our rental clients are in Louisiana, but we occasionally rent in Texas and Mississippi, as well.

5. How Long Does It Take to Get Our Bunker Gear Cleaned Through BGS?

Most gear takes around two to three business days to clean, but heavily soiled gear can take five to seven business days.

6. What Types of Bunker Gear Does BGS Clean?

We clean all "standard" bunker gear as well as flash suits and aluminized gear.

7. Can BGS Help With Bunker Gear Maintenance and Repair?

Absolutely. We are highly skilled and experienced in maintaining and repairing a wide range of PPE and rescue gear. Best of all, we can provide you with replacement gear while yours is being cleaned or repaired.

8. Does BGS Also Sell Bunker Gear?

BGS has sold all types of bunker gear since 1999. We carry all top brands and are happy to accept custom orders. Learn more about our bunker gear purchasing options.

Buy, Rent, Clean and Test Your Bunker Gear With BGS

Bunker gear maintenance and repair is strictly regulated by the National Fire Protection Association, which mandates a formal inspection be conducted at least every 12 months. But seasoned firefighters and fire chiefs know that when lives depend on gear that doesn't fail, it's best to perform regular inspections for any indication that bunker gear might not be up to standard. 

At Bunker Gear Specialists, we are honored to provide our gear and experience to the brave firefighters who face danger to save others every day. Learn more about our bunker gear cleaning and testing services, rent bunker equipment from us or contact us with any questions.

Buy, Rent, Clean and Test Your Bunker Gear With BGS

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