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New smart fabrics and protective gear innovations keep first responders safer

Advanced Textiles | December 1, 2018 | By:

S&T performs tests on the enhanced PPE technologies that simulate how responders use it in their daily duties. Photo: Department of Homeland Security.

First responders—from firefighters to law enforcement to emergency medical services technicians—need to be ready to handle any situation they encounter, and they need the appropriate gear to respond quickly to emergencies. Responders draw on their experience to make sound decisions in the chaos of a crime or accident scene, or in the heat of a fire. Having access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and reliable response technologies means they can focus on the task at hand, which is, in many cases, saving lives.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) mission is to deliver effective and innovative insight, methods and technological solutions for the critical needs of first responders, to keep our communities and nation secure. By engaging and partnering with the emergency preparedness and response communities, S&T achieves a better understanding of their requirements and is able to develop innovative solutions to their most pressing operational challenges.

From a virtual environment that provides realistic training scenarios across multiple first-responder disciplines to advanced PPE that reduces responders’ risk of heat exhaustion, bodily injury or cancer, S&T has been instrumental in developing, validating and commercializing technologies that first responders have identified as critical capability gaps.

S&T is currently partnering with several academic institutions and industry performers to invest in smart fabrics, as well as protective equipment, to keep first responders safer and help them perform their jobs more effectively. By leveraging emerging innovations to enhance technologies already on the market, several exciting developments are currently, or will soon be, available for responders to add to their tool kits.

New products, new power
Photo: Department of Homeland Security.

S&T recently issued a solicitation through its Silicon Valley Innovation Program (SVIP) for energy-harvesting fabrics that will allow first responders to power up their communications equipment, with sensors for environmental and physiological monitors or other tools, without adding to the considerable weight load they already carry.

In August 2018, S&T awarded $199,260 to Boston-based Protect the Force Inc. for the Phase I development of photovoltaic (PV) fibers that can be woven into a “power fabric” and integrated with first-responder garments to provide a reliable, portable power source.

S&T is also working to arm responders with more durable PPE, developing enhanced gloves to hoist rescue workers whose stability is paramount as they work to rescue people who are injured and stranded in hard-to-access areas. Currently available rescue hoist gloves have severe limitations; they may only last for one or two rescues, as friction from the steel rescue cable causes the gloves to degrade quickly, and the glove material can become entangled in the cable, causing the glove to fail prematurely. This is extremely dangerous as well as extremely costly for agencies that have to continuously procure replacements.

“We go through rescue gloves quickly, and talking to our counterparts in the U.S. Coast Guard, they face the same issue,” says Steve Vandewalle from San Diego Fire and Rescue. “Private industry has been slow to address this—not because it isn’t greatly needed, but because of the limited market. Having S&T drive the research and development of a solution to this capability gap will open the door to bringing a suitable product to responders.”

Existing gloves lack comfort and flexibility, and do not provide enough dexterity for first responders to perform a variety of required tasks. S&T awarded funding in April 2018 to St. Paul, Minn.-based Higher Dimension Materials Inc. (HDM) to develop enhanced rescue hoist gloves. HDM is testing materials and gloves currently on the market to determine wear rates and wear patterns of these designs and glove materials.

The company is also testing new materials to identify those that will provide the increased levels of durability required by responders in an enhanced glove design that is more comfortable, flexible and durable, while providing greater dexterity for the responder wearing the gloves. Prototypes will be laboratory- and field-tested with state and local first responders and U.S. Coast Guard personnel, with the goal of having a commercial product available on the market in late spring 2019.

Critical feedback

S&T continues to leverage fabrics and equipment to help first responders carry out their day-to-day tasks more quickly and efficiently. Several of the technologies currently in development will soon be transitioned to commercial use. Before those transitions can happen, S&T will conduct real-world testing to ensure that the technologies meet first responder operational requirements.

Wear testing is being currently conducted with two multi-threat protective base ensembles that can be worn as normal duty uniforms. S&T collaborated with both North Carolina State University’s Textile Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC) and Luna Innovations Inc., Roanoke, Va., to develop the garments (shirts and pants) that provide protection against multiple threats while maintaining comfort for prolonged daily wear. The garments provide increased levels of protection against specific threats compared to existing responder uniforms.

The first, Advanced Multi-threat Base Ensemble for Responders, or AMBER, was designed by TPACC in partnership with Protect the Force. The team identified and selected commercially available materials that meet various protective requirements. AMBER design goals included comfort and durability for daily wear; limited protection against heat and flame; splash resistance; rip/tear protection; and modular design for integration with primary protective clothing against specific hazards. In addition, the design team aimed to address unique design requirements of female responders.

The second, designed by Luna Innovations, is designed to be worn daily and protects against multiple hazards for a limited period of time. The multilayer textile system consists of fluid-resistant textile treatment to repel water, chemicals and bodily fluids; antimicrobial textile treatment to protect against a range of bacteria and pathogens; a flame-resistant textile layer; a chemical protective membrane; and rip/tear protection.

These base ensemble uniforms are currently being wear-tested by first responders in the United States, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Available now

To ensure that first responders are on the cutting edge of technology as they respond to emergencies, S&T looks at a variety of sources—including the commercial marketplace, responder communities and international partners—for low- to high-tech solutions. Sometimes that means starting from scratch, and other times it means taking available technologies and enhancing them specifically to meet responders’ operational, training or even health-related needs.

The increased rate of cancer among firefighters is alarming, so when it was brought to the attention of the DHS, S&T funded a project to address this important issue. S&T collaborated with TPACC and LION Group Inc., headquartered in Dayton, Ohio, to develop a structural turnout ensemble with enhanced protection infiltration at the ensemble interfaces from smoke and soot that could contain carcinogenic compounds.

Laboratory tests, including tests to determine vapor infiltration and fluorescent particle tests, were critical in demonstrating that the new turnout ensemble prevents smoke and particulates from reaching firefighters’ skin, protecting them from hazardous vapors and materials. By reducing the potential for chronic dermal exposures to toxic fireground compounds, over time this ensemble and the technologies developed during this research will help to improve the well-being and safety of firefighters.

TPACC conducted development testing with local firefighters, incorporating changes to the structural turnout ensemble based on their direct feedback. The new structural turnout ensemble, named RedZone Contaminant Control, is currently available for agencies to purchase through LION.

New solutions needed

In seeking to protect the U.S. against terrorism and all other hazards, S&T will continue to provide first-responder solutions for high-priority capability gaps through rapid prototyping, technology assistance and information sharing to save lives and maximize preparedness. The first responder community is in need of solutions at various price points and capabilities. S&T is always looking to collaborate with industry to meet these needs.



William “Bill” Deso is program manager, Department of Homeland Security, Science & Technology Directorate, for several firefighter personal protection equipment projects, and has successfully transitioned several of its projects to the commercial marketplace. He is a member of the Science and Technology Subcommittee of the InterAgency Board (IAB) and a participant in the Washington, D.C., area Council of Governments HazMat Subcommittee.


For more information on current and future SVIP solicitations, contact To provide ideas on technology solutions, visit or contact for more information about S&T’s research and development efforts, or for technologies currently available for the first response community.

To address high cancer rates among firefighters, S&T collaborated with TPACC and LION Group Inc. to develop a structural turnout ensemble with enhanced protection infiltration at the ensemble interfaces from smoke
and soot that could contain carcinogenic compounds.

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