By Alan M. Petrillo
A new generation of wildland personal protective equipment (PPE) currently is undergoing field testing in California by several fire agencies, under the auspices of the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Full sets of wildland firefighting gear, redesigned and reengineered, are being tested by more than a thousand wildland firefighters from CAL FIRE (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection), the United States Forest Service, and 11 fire departments in California.
Bill Deso, program manager for the S&D Directorate’s First Responder Group, says the wildland gear project began in the spring of 2011 after CAL FIRE noticed its firefighters were getting a lot of heat stress injuries vs. burn injuries. “They looked at some of the university research that came out of California and ultimately developed requirements for wildland firefighting PPE that exceeds National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards,” Deso says. “They brought their research to S&T and eventually their minimum values became the requirements for our project.”
Deso notes that North Carolina State University provided the testing of materials for the garments that are being developed, looking at the total heat loss from the fabrics and the radiant protection factors of the materials. “We’re testing different configurations of the various garments with the thousand wildland firefighters in California,” he says. “Shirts, station pants, over-pants and coats have been produced in different fabrics and issued to firefighters to determine how well they will perform in the field.”
Deso noted that S&T came up with three different fabrics to be field tested across all of the garment configurations. “We’re not only looking at outwear, but also at the system components,” he says. “We’ve been testing socks that have been developed by Department of Defense (DoD) personnel in theater, and also no-drip, no-melt, wicking tee shirts based on military designs. We have a lot of good in-theater data on those tees.”
Deso points out that wicking is very important in an undergarment. “An undergarment is often worn for a long period of time,” he says. “The individual might be dropped off some distance from where he is to work and would have to hike to where he will have to fight the fire. Wearing a cotton tee shirt doesn’t provide any cooling effect through evaporation that the wicking tees provide. And a cold garment next to the skin at night when the temperature drops is not desirable.”
Deso expects that the field testing in California will have been completed by late November or early December of 2012. “We made sure we got working group input from the firefighters who would be wearing this gear,” Deso points out. “They helped design the prototype garment, modified it, and worked with us until we got the design right for them. They told us this was the first time anyone had asked them what they needed to do their job, instead of being told what to wear.”
Deso notes that the new design has a deeper bellows on the back of the coat so it stretches more with the individual and gives greater freedom of movement. Likewise, the pants have a gusseted crotch for more strength and ease of movement. Elbows on the coat are reinforced and all pockets are bellowed and angled to make access more convenient and secure.
The design and specifications of the new PPE will be owned by the United States government, but will be publicly released, Deso says, so that any manufacturer can make its own version of the garments.
ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.
By Alan M. Petrillo