The events of Sept. 11, 2001 turned the world of emergency response on its head.
From that day forward, everything from the thoughts that would go through firefighters heads as they responded to calls to the specialized equipment they would need would be different. And 9/11 would be the reference point.
Those factors have driven a race among researchers and manufacturers over the past several years to develop turnout gear so innovative and potentially effective, it’s not a stretch to call it revolutionary. The effort is about to bear fruit with three main suppliers – Morning Pride Manufacturing, Globe Manufacturing and Lion Apparel, Inc. – getting close to testing products developed while pursuing three parallel independent projects.
At the heart of the effort is the question: What if firefighters found themselves at a scene where a weapon of mass destruction had been deployed? Obviously, the equipment of their forefathers would not be equal to that challenge. But what would?
In 2002 the International Association of Fire Fighters launched an initiative to develop, prototype and field test structural firefighting personal protective equipment with enhanced chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear protective qualities to address emerging threats in a post-9/11 world.
The IAFF initiative was funded with a $2 million federal grant from the Department of Homeland Security and was called Project HEROES (Homeland Emergency Response Operational and Equipment Systems).
Design By Morning Pride
A team was formed that included Total Fire Group’s Morning Pride of Dayton, Ohio, as the design leader and manufacturer. The team set out to develop a new PPE ensemble that would be vastly superior in performance to standard turnout gear, but not much different in appearance.
“We’re calling it a new generation in firefighting gear,” said Richard M. Duffy, an IAFF official who is the principal investigator and program director for Project HEROES. “Our goal was to come up with a set of bunker gear that would be effective under all conditions, whether a firefighter was responding to a structure fire or a Dumpster fire.”
Also on the Project HEROES team are the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and International Personal Protection, Inc., an Austin, Texas firm headed by Jeffrey Stull, an expert on PPE.
Since standard firefighting gear would provide “minimal protection, if any” in the new world of multiple-threat emergencies, Stull said new standards for turnout gear had to be established. In addition, he said, material that would meet those standards had to be developed, manufactured and tested extensively and independently.
W. L. Gore & Associates, the creator of GORE-TEX, appears to have solved the most basic question by developing CHEMPAK, a material that exhibits all the properties the project team was seeking, while remaining lightweight and quite similar in appearance to standard turnout gear. The three competing companies are all using CHEMPAK.
Gore describes the material as a selectively permeable fabric that provides a high level of total heat loss while protecting against specified toxic industrial chemicals and chemical warfare agents.
The 2007 edition of the National Fire Protection Association 1971 Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting states that PPE meeting the standard’s CBRN option are intended to provide a “minimum level of protection for firefighting personnel from specified CBRN agents.”
Confident Of Certification
GORE said its executives are confident that PPE ensembles using CHEMPAK will be certified to the NFPA 1971 CBRN option in the near future.
Stull said the Project HEROES team took a three-tiered approach to redesigning standard turnout gear, focusing on the shell, the moisture barrier and the thermal barrier.
“Those are the areas that are going to protect a firefighter,” he said. “It must also provide better heat resistance than standard turnout gear. Coming up with a design that would work in all those areas was the most challenging aspect of the project, but we believe we’ve achieved our goals.”
He said researchers quickly identified a major flaw in the concept of traditional turnout gear, one that would absolutely need to be corrected if the project were to move forward: “No attention to interface areas.”
Keeping Out Vapors
How would an ensemble fit on a firefighter as one integrated unit, sealing him from head to toe? How would new gear eliminate the entry ports where chemical and biological agents, as well as airborne and waterborne pathogens, might breach the gear?
The first order of business, according to Stull, was to identify the key interface points – coat closure, pant closure, pants to footwear, hood to coat, hood to face piece, coat to glove.
“Our goal was keeping out vapors,” he said. “This was a whole new approach to what had been done before.”
Solutions had to be developed without encumbering firefighters, without restricting their movements and hindering their effectiveness. That would be an important feature in the goal of making CBRN protection passive.
Each of the three manufacturers involved came up with some particularly impressive accomplishments.
Features of the Project HEROES ensemble are:
- A side zipper coat closure for greater vapor-penetration resistance. A “fin” adds a baffle to enhance effectiveness.
- The pant closure eliminates the standard zipper in favor of a gusset.
- The pant-to-footwear interface uses a sock-like extension of the boot liner. The boot has been modified to accept the new liner and hold the sock –which can be laundered – in place. The new design provides a leak-free interface and, according to Stull, means “no more hot water in the boot.”
- The coat-to-glove interface uses a system of rings with a Neoprene gasket to lock the glove and sleeve together with self-aligning magnets between the rings. The glove remains in place until the firefighter twists it for removal.
- The hood-to-coat connection employs an integrated hood to replace the former separate-hood system.
- The hood-to-face piece interface features a flexible gasket at the hood’s edge which seals against the face piece. The coat’s zipper extends to seal the hood around the face piece.
While the Project HEROES ensemble was being developed by Morning Pride in Dayton, a similar effort was underway in Pittsfield, N.H., where Globe Manufacturing is located.
Globe’s project is called CB.READY, and it also benefited from federal homeland security money, about $800,000. The funding came through North Carolina State University, which led the research through its strong textiles study department, according to Mark Mordecai, Globe’s director of business development.
“Our goal was to develop a firefighter turnout suit that would provide additional protection in this new environment,” he said. “This has really been a moving target. It has to provide vapor resistance, along with liquid resistance, create a CB barrier and still be breathable.”
Globe describes its CB.READY ensemble as an advanced technology turnout suit with additional chemical and biological protection designed to meet the new CBRN optional requirement contained in NFPA 1971, as well as Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.
In its literature the company notes that NFPA 1971 does not include any tests or requirements intended to provide protection against radiological and nuclear hazards. Consequently the company said the CB.READY ensemble does not provide protection against those hazards.
Globe said its designers sought guidance from firefighters who said they wanted additional CB protection, but also needed gear that would be easy to use.
“They wanted this to be turnout gear first, not hazmat gear, but with everything on board that they would need to protect them for short duration escape and rescue,” the company said. “And they didn’t want it to increase heat stress during firefighting operations.”
Globe said it developed an everyday firefighter suit that, when needed, has a hood and a series of quickly activated closures to provide additional CB protection. Because the NFPA 1971 standard requires complete ensemble testing, the company said it developed boots and gloves to interface with the jackets and pants.
Features of Globe’s CB.READY ensemble are:
- A double-jacket system that’s actually two jackets which zip together across the top of the collar. The outer jacket is similar to traditional turnout gear, while the inner jacket comprises a CB barrier and a thermal liner. The jacket includes a hidden integral hood.
- A drag-rescue device between the jacket layers and looped around the upper portion of the shoulders that deploys quickly to help rescue a downed firefighter.
- Pants that have an extension above the waist for gap-free closure between pants and jacket
- A large ‘V’ gusset behind a vertical Velcro fly which tucks out of the way when pants are donned.
- A boot collar interface with pants coupled with a CB barrier on a new lighter and more flexible version of the company’s Magnum boots.
“We have different closures than Project HEROES,” Mordecai said. “We wanted to keep ours as much like everyday turnout gear as possible.”
Globe’s closures rely more on adjustable components and are very effective in creating a tight seal, he said.
Meanwhile, Lion Apparel, also of Dayton, Ohio – minus any federal funding – has also been hard at work on its own version of advanced turnout gear.
“Globe, Morning Pride and Lion are really the three that are closest to completing the work,” said Nick Curtis, Lion’s vice president of product development. “I think all three are on a level playing field.”
Lion Apparel’s Ensemble
He said CHEMPAK was the only suit material under consideration that would meet NFPA and OSHA standards, and that’s why all three manufacturers are using it.
Despite not having the benefit of “taxpayer funding,” he said Lion is as close to achieving NFPA certification as its competitors.
Some features of Lion’s ensemble are:
- A coat with integrated hood and CHEMPAK-lined wristlets at the glove-sleeve interface with elasticized cuff openings and an internal vapor skirt.
- A gauntlet-style cowhide glove to interface with over-the-thumb wristlets.
- An overpant identical in fit and appearance to the company’s Janesville V-Force with integrated lumbar support.
- Integrated detachable and replaceable footies/booties that can be worn with virtually any NFPA 1971-compliant boot.
The interfaces are not the only areas of innovation the project teams accomplished.
As part of their focus on the new gear’s “upper torso integrity,” Project HEROES team members, for example, devised a method to recirculate SCBA exhalation air and provide cooling and increased insulation throughout the ensemble.
At Globe, Mordecai said the company is looking further toward the future, working on an outfit with sensors that would measure body temperature and stress factors that could be signaled to incident commanders. That kind of monitoring would be very effective in getting firefighters out of high-stress situations before serious medical problems develop, he said.
Stull said while much attention has been given over the years to the carcinogens firefighters are apt to take in through their respiratory system, the new gear will afford much greater protection from the many contaminants that attack the body through the pores.
“As far as chemical and biological weapons are concerned, of course we hope it never happens,” he said. “But firefighters are constantly in hazmat situations with bleach and detergents in the home. Lots of chemicals cause damage through skin contact and it accumulates in the clothing.”
The next step for the three companies is testing the new turnout gear.
A dozen or so sets of Project HEROES gear were due to be shipped in July to the Chicago and Houston fire departments for field testing, according to Duffy.
He said his organization’s team expects to meet its goal of providing the new gear for “just under $2,000” per outfit, not much more expensive than present equipment.
Differences On Cost
There are, however, differences of opinion that the outfits can be delivered at that cost.
“It’s not altogether clear how realistic that is,” Mordecai said of the $2,000 estimate. “This is not going to be a low-cost or no-cost product.”
Who will win the race to produce the best gear? Officials of the three companies said the ultimate winners are going to be the firefighters and their supervisors who should have their choice of high-quality gear.
“As far as the manufacturers are concerned,” Mordecai said, “they’ll just end up competing in the marketplace.”