A suit of plate armor weighing up to 100 pounds. A 10-foot-thick stone fortress wall. A thin piece of highly engineered fabric. Whether the danger is a force of nature or a manufactured threat, all three provide protection. But much has changed since medieval days of storming the castle and the logic that “the heavier the product, the better the protection.” In the last few years there has been accelerated improvement in the arena of safety and protective textile products. From first responder turnout gear and hazmat suits to fire shelters and ancillary disaster-response items, products now offer increased comfort to users while providing advanced performance.
Responding to first responders
Globe Manufacturing Co. in Pittsfield, N.H., has been developing gear for the first responder and disaster recovery communities since 1887, and the company relies on the “voice of the customer” to guide product development.
“We interview firefighters, administrators and managers and ask what they like, what they don’t like and what they would change if they could of the products that they currently go into a response with,” says Rob Freese, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Globe. “That provides us with the feedback and data upon which we make product decisions. What I think doesn’t really matter—it’s what the customer is telling us that matters.”
In addition to being senior vice president of sales and marketing at Globe, Freese has been a firefighter for 34 years and is the emergency management director in Pittsfield where Globe is located, so he understands both the responder perspective and the product development and manufacturing side of the equation. “We’re trying to encourage the market to look at and understand the environment responders are operating in and what the potential challenges are, and they’re not that far-fetched,” he says. “The common types of things responders encounter, such as gas leaks, can occur with almost any natural or manmade disaster. We’re developing garments that are easier to wear, are thinner and less bulky and do a better job at moisture management—those are really important attributes that first responders are looking for.”
In response to the responder feedback, Globe previewed its latest turnout gear—ATHLETIX™—at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) International 2016. The product was developed with a stretch outer shell fabric engineered by Union City, Ga.-based TenCate Protective Fabrics USA, one of Globe’s partners in the supply process. The firefighter gear, which allows for an unprecedented range of unrestricted motion, was made available to the commercial market this year.
Safety Components, a division of the International Textile Group in Greenville, S.C., is a global market leader in technology-driven fabric solutions for first responders, military, outdoor enthusiasts and others seeking high-performance textiles. Its primary focus is the development of branded fabric solutions for the structural, wildland and technical rescue markets. “No matter where we go around the globe, every first responder wants lighter weight and better comfort as they look to reduce heat stress,” says Joey Underwood, Safety Components’ senior vice president.
Safety Components’ Filament Twill Technology™ provides for flexible fabrics woven with filament and spun yarns in a twill design. The fabrics are incorporated into outer shells such as PBI Max™, Armor AP™, the new Nomex® 360™ and the new Glide Ice™ thermal liner. “The result is the strongest, most tear resistant, most flexible and most comfortable line of personal protective fabrics providing increased mobility in turnout gear,” Underwood says.
He points out that historically, most firefighting shell materials were 240 grams in weight. Safety Components introduced a 205-gram version of its PBI Max outer shell and a 220-gram version of Nomex Armor AP™ outer shell. For the international market, Safety Components has developed a 170-gram version of Nomex 360. “We believe the long-term trend is a continued movement to lighter weight materials,” Underwood says.
Chemical and biohazard protection
Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont™ is applying its science and engineering capabilities to develop protection products for ever-increasing chemical and biological disaster threats. “The world is getting more global and mobile. Thus, individuals are more vulnerable to violence and the spread of pandemics than in years past,” says Elizabeth Briggs, DuPont’s North America marketing leader for Tyvek® and Tychem® Protective Apparel. “There is a heightened awareness by governments and hospitals about the need to protect workers who will respond to these issues.
“Workers also face more complex threats, so multiple hazard protection is needed from PPE [personal protective equipment],” she continues. “For instance, a DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] agent having to respond to a meth lab needs both chemical and flash fire protection that is comfortable, lightweight and easy to use—worker comfort, safety, dual-hazard protection and ease of donning and doffing are just a few of the critical issues for responders and PPE manufacturers who supply them.”
DuPont continues to innovate with its Tyvek and Tychem fabrics to improve on its balance of protection, durability and comfort for users. Products made with Tyvek materials serve a number of diverse markets from cleanroom and pharmaceutical to painting and construction to remediation and hazmat, and they protect workers against small-size hazardous particles, including lead, asbestos and mold. Tychem suits provide chemical protection available against hundreds of toxic liquids and vapors, from sarin to chlorine gas.
Knowing which product is the proper choice for any given threat is a vital part of protecting responders. DuPont SafeSPEC™ is a chemical permeation database and product selector tool that shows fabric permeation and penetration data for each of its suits, and helps workers make decisions on what kind of protection they need based on the hazard they face.
The tool is available via the internet and as a mobile app.
“We also have certified industrial hygienist resources on staff to help provide guidance based on the hazards present in a disaster situation,” Briggs says.
Those first hours and days after a disaster are just the beginning of multiple challenges for the affected communities, which are left to deal with the aftermath. Kirkland, Wash.-based BLU-MED Response Systems® provides emergency shelters and mobile field hospitals to communities in need. “Over the past few years BLU-MED has shifted focus to the international market, specifically toward disaster response and humanitarian aid organizations, but also continues to serve the military mobile medical market including several foreign military markets,” says Don Diesel, Ph.D., president, BLU-MED Division. “In many cases, our customer needs a mobile hospital or clinic that can be easily transported to very remote locations and set up quickly with a limited amount of technical support.”
BLU-MED’s most recent development is its Negative Pressure Isolation (NPI) system, which integrates with its portable medical shelter system and environmental control unit to provide filtered air to the patient care area. One feature of the NPI system is its ability to scale the size of the isolation cell within the mobile shelter, providing versatility when caring for a smaller number of patients requiring isolation.
The filtration unit includes a high-efficiency HEPA filter and a UV germicidal filter to effectively control all three elements of indoor air quality: particles, biologicals and gas phase volatile organic compounds. The system can provide negative pressure isolation or positive pressure isolation. “In the negative pressure configuration, this system is useful for airborne infection isolation of patients with diseases such as tuberculosis, smallpox, SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] and influenza,” Diesel says. “In the positive pressure configuration, the system provides a clean air environment for surgery, post-op recovery and laboratory settings.”
Providing for portable lighting and power in post-disaster situations is a relatively new focus of the disaster response industry. When architectural graduate students Anna Stork and Andrea Sreshta were asked to design a product to assist post-earthquake relief efforts in Haiti in 2010, they identified the need for light from among the dangerous conditions at night in the tent cities. The two founded LuminAID® to provide portable lighting and power wherever it’s needed.
“Lighting has not always been distributed to disaster victims,” Stork says. “But in more recent years, we are seeing it become more and more common. The cost of rechargeable lighting products, in particular the cost of solar-rechargeable lighting products, is lower and the performance of solar panels and rechargeable batteries has improved. The quality of manufacturing has also improved.”
LuminAID’s solar lights are inflatable, lightweight and waterproof. When charged outside in direct sun for seven hours, the lights can provide up to 50 hours of LED light. The lights feature multiple brightness settings, sizes and shapes. No external batteries or electricity are required for operation, so the lanterns can be used as soon as they arrive in a disaster zone.
“In addition to light, the other growing market is portable power in post-emergency situations,” Stork says. “There are more cell phones than people in the world right now and offering a solar-rechargeable power source can help people stay connected in emergency situations.”
For first responders and communities affected by disaster, safety and protective products provide solutions to a myriad of threats—and those solutions often come in the form of highly engineered textiles.
Sigrid Tornquist, a writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minn., is a frequent contributor to IFAI publications.