“I love the word resilience,” says Harold Warner, majority owner and president of Dynamic Air Shelters in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. “Whether you’re operating on a physical plane or a psychological plane, resilience enables you to deflect danger and harm. What our company has done is expand and elevate the state of inflatable resilience in response to blast and ballistics.”
Warner’s introduction to inflatables began with hot air ballooning. He operated balloons fashioned after a cow jumping over the moon, a tyrannosaurus rex and even a flying pink elephant. He held the world record for the distance flown in a single hot air balloon from 1984 to 1989. But for Warner, all that was simply “an extraordinary education” that prepared him for work he was yet to be a part of: work that was—and is—on the leading edge of breaking inflatable records that really matter for humanity.
Warner and his crew put 138 balloons over Olympic air space during the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary— a feat that both showcased his abilities and enticed him to new heights. “You can imagine the security involved with that,” he says. “It felt like the most fascinating, taxing and interesting thing we could achieve. But after that I began searching for what might be beyond ballooning for us.”
In 1994, Warner made his first air shelter, in response to a client who challenged him to make a structure that wasn’t so tied to the elements. “My client said: ‘We love balloons, but when the wind blows too strong, you can’t fly them. If it’s too hot, you can’t fly them. If it’s cold, you can’t fly them. We need a balloon that works in summer and winter—in rain and snow,’” Warner says. “So I created a structure that looks significantly like a balloon and is air-inflated—just to prove to him it could be done. I never imagined I would end up building hundreds of them.”
Over time, Warner began building more air-inflated structures and fewer balloons. By the year 2000 he sold off the balloon portion of his business to focus solely on air shelters—and launched Dynamic Air Shelters. “There is a difference between air-supported structures and air-inflated structures,” he points out. “Air-supported structures are the kind of structure in which occupants are in a pressurized space. The whole thing is like a balloon, and you have to go through an air lock to enter it. An inflated structure is one in which the air is inside cells (or beams). So with our structures, you can leave the doors wide open.”
In 2001 Dynamic won the contract to supply temporary shelters for the 27th G8 Summit in Kananaskis, Alberta, Canada—at the airport where the dignitaries arrived and at the lodge where the summit took place. “The summit took place in a remote mountain setting,” Warner says. “That was a time when we were in some ways searching for our identity. It gave us a chance to think about what direction we wanted to take—and imagine how we could provide shelters for the military.”
At about the same time, the United States was responding to 9/11, which opened doors for Dynamic to create response shelters, including portable hospitals and decontamination systems. During those years Dynamic developed an innovative inflatable platform that could be installed over land mines, enabling people to walk on the platform without triggering an explosion. The company also built temporary hospital isolation rooms for patients with illnesses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). The rooms were designed so that if the patient died, workers could close the vents, release the structure from its frames, and essentially vacuum-pack the body. “In the instance of SARS, 50 percent of the people who died were health care workers, so we created a device where if the person died, people weren’t even handling the bodies,” Warner says.
Surviving the blast
By 2005, Warner had turned his attention to building larger structures with an emphasis on blast resistance. “We were doing all right in the first response market but I was more interested in larger structures,” he says. “After a major industrial accident in 2005 that killed 15 workers as a direct result of conventional buildings collapsing in an explosion, I decided to work on creating a blast-resistant structure.”
Dynamic’s first attempt to create a blast-resistant structure was successful, to the surprise of at least one military officer at the test site. The shelter was set up, with approximately 4,500 pounds of nitromethane and more than a pound of C-4 set for detonation. Warner was ready with binoculars to assess the damage to see which areas of the structure might need improvement when the officer shared this skeptical prediction: “Whatever parts you see of this [structure] after the explosion you’re not going to recognize.”
A few minutes later, Warner pulled his hoodie over his head and listened to the countdown. “With the explosion came a giant dust cloud, and we completely lost sight of the shelter,” he says. “But when the big fireball and dust cloud was moved aside by the wind—there was our shelter standing nice and secure.”
Warner points out that the company’s structures are not blast-resistant because they’re inflatable. They’re blast-resistant because of the way they harness the energies acting on them. “We overcome the forces acting on the structure in a manner that involves both strength and resilience,” he says. “Simplified, it’s not unlike how when your car tire hits a rock, it deforms but it recovers. And we now have a new design that means our shelters are safer to be in during certain explosions than steel structures.”
In search of new partners
Dynamic has also been working on creating massive inflatable structures, such as those that cover sports fields and construction sites, and Warner is hoping to collaborate with others to achieve even more. “We’re keen to work with others in the industry,” he says. “Our strength matched with the strength of others is twice as able. Our desire is to make ourselves stronger by partnering with others who have strengths or abilities in other parts of the world.
“Everything I’ve ever done has been a collaboration,” Warner continues. “I may be the entrepreneur and the one who drives some of the ideas, but none of this would happen without the engineers, designers and other partners.”
Dynamic Air Shelters does a lot of work for the petrochemical industry, which is a cyclical market. How do you handle those fluctuations?
When the market is strong, you harvest; when it’s weak, you find other markets to enter. So we’re moving into other areas of service where we can provide value. We’ve done work in the sports market and the construction market, and we’d like to expand in those markets. Now we’ve got a new design that can make people safer in a military environment, which is a market I know very little about. I would like to work with people who know something about the challenges the military faces and let us add the ingredients that we validated recently.
When developing blast- and ballistic-resistant shelters, thorough testing is vital—but for Dynamic Air Shelters’ Harold Warner, testing can also be the source of great satisfaction. Take, for instance, a ballistics test the company did in 2010 with BakerRisk (Baker Engineering and Risk Consultants Inc.). BakerRisk assisted in testing Dynamic’s blast- and ballistic-resistant air shelter against a Vapor Cloud Explosion, which the Center for Chemical Process Safety defines as “an explosion resulting from the ignition of a cloud of flammable vapor, gas, or mist in which flame speeds accelerate to sufficiently high velocities to produce significant overpressure.”
Warner explains that the structure gets hit with 1500 degrees (F) but the amount of heat that gets transferred to the occupants is just 5 degrees. Additionally, the shockwave would cause instant cardiac arrest to anyone standing outside the shelter, while inside the structure the impact is mitigated.
“It’s because it moves,” Warner says. “If it moves, it has the capacity to endure.”