In September, 29 large, uncontained wildfires raged in the United States. And, if that isn’t scary enough, a new structure fire occurs somewhere every 66 seconds.
The men and women who fight these fires face danger from all sides, from flames, heat stress and falling debris to chemicals and airborne toxins that can cause cancer. But in Raleigh, a research center works closely with firefighters to improve their gear and extend their lives.
In a test chamber at the NC State College of Textiles, researchers watch as a column of flames engulfs a life-sized mannequin. In a nearby lab, a firefighter puts new turnout gear through its paces; outside, a high-temperature smoker turns up the heat on thermal protective gear. This is the Textile Protection and Comfort Center, or TPACC: A facility designed to save lives by furthering the science of protective clothing.
“The research at NC State on structure firefighter gear is very important,” says Gregory Bridges, battalion chief for the Raleigh Fire Department. “[It] has and will continue to protect and save lives.”
TPACC’s research has led to the development of fire- and heat-resistant fabrics for firefighters, surgical gowns to shield medical workers from biological threats and turnout gear that protects first responders against carcinogens.
“We really listen to firefighters,” says Dr. Roger Barker, TPACC’s director. “We don’t just sit in our lab and come up with things we think will be great. …We say, ‘What do you want? What are your conditions?’ All of our projects begin that way.”
TPACC labs are fitted out with a family of research mannequins that mimic the human body: PyroMan, a life-sized mannequin subjected to intense heat and open flames; SweatMan, a sweating mannequin with human-like skin that measures clothing’s resistance to sweat evaporation and cooling in motion; and the Man-in-Simulant Test Lab, a sweating, walking and breathing mannequin system to evaluate how first responder gear protects against harmful chemical and biological agents. Researchers use RadHand and
PyroHands to measure the efficacy of firefighter gloves, PyroHead to test the safety of first responder helmets as well as a small wind tunnel and a range of other sophisticated instruments.
Building a Better Fire Shelter
Wildland firefighters face dangerous, unpredictable conditions. Fires can shift suddenly, trapping first responders in an inferno, so they carry a last line of defense known as the fire shelter, a portable, tent-like structure made of fiberglass and silica fabrics with an aluminized outer shell. It doesn’t provide cover for long, however. Traditional shelters can withstand temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees, but fail after about 30 seconds.
With a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), TPACC set out to build a better fire shelter. Engineers created the stainless steel PyroDome in a test chamber, which allowed them to blast sample fire shelters, creating the intense conditions of a wildland burn.
“What we found was that the fire was creating such a turbulent, violent physical situation that it was literally tearing the aluminized layer off the fire shelter,” Barker says. “When that happens, it catastrophically fails.”
The team of university staff and student researchers engineered a shelter that could withstand conditions for twice as long, buying firefighters a minute or more.
“There is no such thing as fireproof, but what we’re trying to do is buy time,” Barker says. “A matter of seconds can be enough time for them to escape with their life.”
Protecting the Protectors
“Traditionally, firefighters have worn smoke and soot as a badge of honor; the saltier the gear, the better,” says Dr. Bryan Ormond, an assistant professor at TPACC. “That was the mentality. The problem was, that stuff has been killing them. They have elevated risks of many types of cancers compared to the general population: testicular cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, brain cancer and more.”
Firefighters’ turnout gear is similar nationwide: long trousers and coat with reflective strips, boots with handles, a helmet. They dress for emergencies in a flash—a combination of muscle memory and strategic placement—so any changes to their ensemble need to be seamless.
“Firefighters are very traditional,” says Ormond, who has also worked to create national standards for firefighter gear. “If they don’t like something, they are not going to wear it and it is not going to protect anybody.”
The team launched multiple research projects to address first responder occupational illnesses, especially dermal exposure to toxins in soot and smoke. They developed new gear to protect firefighters’ skin at the wrist, waist and ankles, places often left exposed by traditional ensembles, and a hood to protect the vulnerable skin around the neck and head. Raleigh firefighters tested each iteration of gear.
“The current testing … will help limit exposures to deadly carcinogens,” Bridges says. “Limiting this exposure will make a difference in the health of all firefighters.”