Ludovic Ouvry introduces a new CBRN personal protective suit – the POLYCOMBI – for military to civil first responders

Armies face a double challenge: to modernise their equipment and face new asymmetric conflicts, including worldwide crises such as the coronavirus pandemic. Major cuts have led to armed forces deciding to extend the useful lifetime of some key equipment in service, including CBRN PPE – in order to maintain a minimum capability

“If you use chemical warfare agents, we have the capability to continue our mission… and we will neutralise you”

CBRN protective equipment and decontamination is not immune to financial and budgetary constraints. A CBRN protective suit from the 1980s protects the wearer despite minor obsolescence or inconvenience to the combatant. Excessive heat stress, lack of comfort, excessive weight, unsuitability to new combat equipment and equipment worn as an ‘add-on’ – such as a ballistic vest – are not considered by decision-makers to decrease the suit’s operational capability or to justify an expensive update from one generation of equipment to another for the entire Army.

At the same time, whether for deployed forces or national crisis management – CBRN threats are now systematically taken in account.

Regular and specialist
Thus, most countries have chosen to have old generations of CBRN personal protective clothing ‘cohabit’ with new ones. Most innovative CBRN clothing is designed for Special Forces or specialist CBRN units. To outline the CBRN PPE status for French forces:

CBRN French Special Forces wear a dedicated CBRN combat suit designed and manufactured by Ouvry; conventional forces have older suits.

Some military and gendarmerie units have selected the Ouvry TFI (Intervention Forces Suit).

POLYCOMBI is widely used by specialist units of the French Forces, Civil Defence and by law enforcement units (Police and Gendarmerie).

Innovative suit
In 2008, the French Army chose Ouvry’s innovative CBRN air-permeable protective suit. This major technological evolution provides a major advantage for infantry. More comfortable than the previous generation, Ouvry suits allow for longer missions due to better physiological features. The FELIN (French soldier modernisation programme) CBRN suit manufactured by Ouvry SAS, of which we have produced 22,000 units, has been deployed by French infantry regiments since 2015.

Ouvry then improved and adapted the military FELIN CBRN air-permeable concept for first responders’ plastic impermeable CBRN protective clothing. In 2011, Ouvry launched the new CBRN protective suits for first responders and specialised military staff under the brand name POLYCOMBI. The equipment was designed to meet a wider CBRN threat range for the duration of end-user missions, with improved ergonomics and intuitive properties.

Adapting to first responders
Most first responders do not need to stay in the hot zone for 24 hours, as per the NATO military requirement. Soldiers’ CBRN protective suits protect for 24 hours in a chemical environment. The military need a 24-hour protection time to maintain a capability to continue the fight in a contaminated environment. The POLYCOMBI’s protection time was adapted to provide 12-hour protection to meet the needs of first responders involved in CBRN emergency response:
Armed forces specialists, police, gendarmerie.
Military health service specialists, CBRN emergency hospital specialists and hospital staff dealing with a massive influx of contaminated patients.
First responders, operators of police or gendarmerie, scientific research organisations, OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) inspectors.
Fire brigades and civil defence.
Critical infrastructure security – transport infrastructure, high-security locations, nuclear power plants

What makes it different
The POLYCOMBI suit protects for 12 hours against all CWAs in liquid, vapour or aerosol form, airborne radioactive particles, toxic industrial chemicals (TICs), splashes during decontamination, and BWAs (viruses, bacteria, spores). It reduces secondary contamination when undressing and generates less waste run-off. The POLYCOMBI is also used by NGOs for the management of an epidemic such as Ebola.

The POLYCOMBI is comfortable and significantly reduces the thermal burden and risk of heat stress. It is robust, light, and does not generate unnecessary noise. The material is made of flexible fabric. It allows identification of the end users (police or medical) and hydration tubes and radio transmission is positioned on the shoulders. At least five dosimeter holders are located inside and outside (passive and active devices).

The suit’s interface management was carefully tested to increase its protection factor. The three main interfaces are sleeves, which integrate a double layer to interface optimally with CBRN gloves; integrated booties perfectly integrate with boots without penetration risks; and the most critical interface between the hood and mask is managed with special anti-sliding elastics.

Long life
The suit is reusable and washable whether the area of intervention is contaminated or not. If a CBRN protective posture is necessary, it can be repacked and reused. It can be used in up to ten interventions in a year. The POLYCOMBI instruction suit (same weight, same physiological features) can be used 100 times. Donning and undressing operations are as simple and intuitive as possible.

The POLYCOMBI allows for sustained activity without causing major discomfort, significantly reducing the number of shifts and personnel to be deployed in a crisis theatre. It also means savings in storage costs, reducing the logistics burden. Fewer staff rotations also lessen the risk of secondary contamination.

The POLYCOMBI complies with the new EU 2016/425 regulation and has been EU-certified by the IFTH (French Institute of Textiles and Clothing) after testing in laboratories specialising in CWAs (TNO, DGA/MN, La Maranosa). It has also been designed to be sustainable with environmental protection in mind.

Pursuing its incremental development strategy, Ouvry now offers a similar PPE – the POLYINDUS, which is adapted for industrial hazmat use. The POLYAGRI has also been developed to protect agricultural workers, who may encounter organophosphorous molecules – which are precursor chemicals to nerve agents. It can also protect operatives dealing with the effects of epidemics or the chemical degradation of plants, animal waste or algae.

Ludovic Ouvry is the founder and Director of Ouvry SAS, auditor of the Institute of Higher Studies of National Defence (SR 194), co-founder and Vice President of the EDEN cluster, and a French Air Force reserve officer. Having initially worked in textile manufacturing for the space industry, he was inspired to create his own company in 2003.

Photo credit: Members of a RAID team (French national police intervention unit) during a training session wear the TFI suit.