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Fabrics used for fire shelters

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When a wild land firefighter becomes entrapped, his or her gear of last resort is a fire shelter. The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, developed the New Generation Fire Shelter that offers improved protection from radiant and convective heat as compared to previous shelters. All federal, state and local wild land firefighters carry the fire shelter while working federal fires.

The single-use shelter is made of two layers of laminated material. The outer layer is made of woven silica laminated to aluminum foil. The foil on the outside reflects radiant heat. The silica material slows the rate of heat transfer to the inside of the shelter. The inner layer is made of woven fiberglass material laminated to aluminum foil. In this layer the foil faces the inside of the shelter. The foil prevents heat absorbed by the inner layer from being reradiated inside the shelter. It also provides a barrier to prevent flammable gasses from entering the shelter.

In the development process, shelter designers had to balance the protective ability of the shelter against its weight. Anthony Petrilli, Fire Equipment Specialist with the Missoula Technology and Development Center, Missoula, Mont., explains that heavier materials would provide more protection, but the shelter must be carried by every firefighter all day long and therefore must be as light as possible. The final shelter weighs 4.5 pounds and is 86 inches long, 15.5 inches high, and 31 inches wide.

Petrilli says the shelter is not intended as an everyday tool, but only for life-threatening emergencies when no other escape options are available. Since its introduction in 2005, the shelter has been used 31 times—four were precautionary uses, 13 uses that prevented burns, 14 uses that saved lives, and one use that resulted in a fatality (one incident involved two firefighters in one shelter).

Julie Young is a freelance writer in Indianapolis, Ind.

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