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Fabrics protect firefighters

February 1st, 2009 / By: / Advanced Textiles, Feature

Specialty fabrics meet critical needs in firefighting protection gear.

Modern firefighters face numerous threats when they arrive at the scene of an emergency, and the last thing they need to think about in that moment is gear performance. Personal protective equipment (PPE) and related firefighting fabrics need to be designed with a variety of threats in mind, but frequently there is a trade-off between competing needs. In these cases, fabric suppliers and equipment fabricators are challenged to find a balance between seemingly opposite demands when putting a new fabric or product through research, development, testing and ultimately into the hands of firefighters.

Donna Brehm, former deputy chief of the Virginia Beach, Va., Fire Department, says her team might arrive at what it believes to be a traditional fire only to find that the team is facing a hazardous material situation at the same time.

“For our structural gear you have to find something that is durable and breathable, and that often flies in the face of a hazmat scenario,” she says. “Protective factors compete with one another. Not only do we strive to find something that can combat chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear issues, but it also has to meet the performance of a structural garment.”

This scenario is one dilemma for firefighters who rely on the breathability of turnout gear, but need isolation from a hazardous substance and the products of ordinary combustion associated with structural fires, but it is not the only one. Brehm describes an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) directive that highlights another example of two safety needs competing with one another.

“A new ANSI standard addresses the need to put on safety vests when we are working on the highway in order to increase visibility, but many of those vests are flammable so we have been granted an exemption not to wear them when we are performing firefighting duties, but then you increase the risk of getting hit by another car on the highway,” she says.

Firefighting apparel offers durability, comfort and protection

In addition to needing gear that performs when facing multiple threats, firefighters are always on the lookout for equipment that is durable, lightweight and compatible with the turnout gear they ordinarily wear. Fabricators strive to manufacture garments that are comfortable and that can perform under tough conditions. Tricia Hock, product research and development consultant for Fire-Dex in Medina, Ohio, says there are many new fabrics on the market that have proven to be quite useful in turnout gear.

Fire-Dex engineers protective apparel that gives firefighters a more comfortable and ergonomic fit. FX™ Gear features a seamless collar that offers continuous moisture and thermal protection. “We try to offer more options to the firefighter with FX Gear, but we are always looking to improve our designs for a better level of comfort. We always look to reduce the weight and offer more thermal protection, which is tested in all of our garments,” she says. “We are also working to improve our structural gloves, hoods and helmets in addition to wildland and EMS garments.”

At Hot Shield USA in El Segundo, Calif., designers use CarbonX® material in a specialized mask designed to withstand the heat when battling brush fires. Bert Rivera, co-inventor of the Hot Shield® and a firefighter himself, says that until 1994, firefighters had only a bandana to cover their faces when battling a major brush fire.

“We were able to experiment on our own protective apparel to see what might work best to protect us,” Rivera says. “Single-layer Nomex® was only able to withstand 600 degrees. We initially started out with a two-layer blend of Nomex and Kevlar®, raising the protection level to just over 1,000 degrees, but in 2000, we found CarbonX, and since 2001 have been using it exclusively for all of our facial protection products.”

CarbonX, developed by Chapman Innovations, Salt Lake City, Utah, is a patented blend of high-performance fibers that do not burn, char, shrink or significantly decompose when exposed to intense flame, molten metal, arc flash or high heat. However, even such a high-tech fabric has at least one trade-off: color.

“We started making them in yellow (with the Nomex/Kevlar), but traditional yellow dyes cannot survive the CarbonX fiber ‘cooking’ process,” Rivera says. “There are a lot of traditionalists out there who want to know if they can get their mask in yellow and are somewhat disappointed when we tell them that it only comes in black. Still, it has been a big hit and firefighters who have used it are really pleased with it.”

Rivera believes there is still room for improvement in Hot Shield products. HotShield partners with safety equipment manufacturers Draeger and Sundström to provide fire-resistant housings for some of their respirator products, and Rivera is always on the lookout for devices that would offer firefighters protection without a claustrophobic feeling.

“Some will still fight fires with a bandana rather than wear a mask,” he says. “They just don’t want to be loaded down, so I am all for anything on the market that is lightweight while offering maximum protection.”

Fabrics protect structures from fires

Protecting the firefighter isn’t the only focus in the industry. Companies are also working to protect buildings, homes and other landmarks with specially designed thermal wraps for structures that might be in harm’s way during a wildfire. In addition to providing protective fabric solutions for firefighters, Chapman Innovations is working on custom high-performance technology to protect homes, says Bob Goulet, chief operating officer.

“In the California region, countless multimillion dollar structures are at risk for loss due to the threat of wildfire,” Goulet says. “In the past, homeowners have opted to hire a company to come in and spray the structure with foam, but that process is hindered greatly by the lack of time often present in these situations.”

Also, a firefighter’s primary responsibility is to contain the fire from spreading rather than focusing on saving individual properties. “This has led many investors to call to capitalize on the value of our product and provide a custom CarbonX house cover to their customers,” he says.

The greatest challenge for a supplier in this market is to create the strongest application possible at the lightest weight. “In terms of product innovation specifically directed toward the firefighter, we are trying to grow our application and reach a broader audience by reducing the weight,” Goulet says. “Currently, we have come out with felt that is 60 grams per meter and 1.7 ounces per square yard. The more you can reduce the weight when hanging the fabric in a liner, the greater the level of performance.”

Firezat Inc. in San Diego, Calif., also manufactures fire-resistant shields for homes, cabins and historical structures to protect against wildfires. Firezat’s Fire Shields are composed of a fiberglass substrate with an aluminum laminate using high-temperature adhesive. The material is sewn into larger panels using Kevlar for increased strength and fire resistance. According to company president Dan Hirning, the Heavy Duty shields are reusable due to the 17-ounce/m2 woven substrate and are available in three sizes. The larger sizes make deployment easier and require fewer seams, which are failure points when defending against burning embers blowing in the wind.

“We also have a lighter, or Standard Duty, material that is 7-ounce/m2 and comes in 8 feet by 60 feet, 12 feet by 60 feet, and 4 feet by 300 feet. It is not as reusable but is good for odd shapes like stairs, decks and eaves,” Hirning says. “Both function in the same way: the aluminum reflects 95 percent of the radiant heat while it provides a barrier protecting from firebrands that blow up to a mile in advance of the flames and start new fires. The firebrands land on the shields and will extinguish themselves or just blow off.”

When a fire breaks out in a forest, Hirning says, incident management teams assess the fire and determine what structures need to be wrapped. Crews are often flown in by helicopter to wrap the structures and get out fast. He says the product is constantly under refinement to achieve maximum strength, reusability, minimum weight and usable configurations.

Fabrics industry meets fire protection challenges

Though technological developments in fabrics have helped manufacturers make great strides in creating gear to assist firefighters, those in the field say there is still much to be done.

“It’s an extremely limited market,” says Brehm. “We constantly look at stored energy and how our equipment will remove sweat away from the body. A lot of sampling is done on swatches, and by the time they are built into a coat, knee pads and shoulder pads, and facings are added, that capability of breathability is significantly altered.”

Dexterity is also an issue when firefighters need to perform nonfirefighting tasks, she says. “We have to buy different gloves to perform unique jobs such as technical rescue and vehicle extraction,” she says. “Structural gloves do not provide the needed dexterity when it comes to turning knobs and levers.”

Firefighting professionals can look to the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization for help. A symposium March 9-11 will address issues of special interest. “It’s a constant challenge, but hopefully the Fire PPE Symposium will help us answer some of the questions that puzzle us and share this information with firefighters and other emergency responders.”

The problems can seem daunting; interaction among firefighters and good communication with suppliers to the market and end users will be key to solving them.

Julie Young is a freelance writer in Indianapolis, Ind.

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