W3192: Improving Safety and Health of Wildland Firefighters Through Personal Protective Clothing (formerly WDC39)

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Active


Wildland fires are a growing concern in the United States. For the first time in its 100+ year history, the Forest Service, part of the USDA, is spending more than 50% of its budget to suppress wildfires (USDA, n.d.). In the first eleven months of 2018 there were over 52,000 wildfires, with 56,186 reported in 2017 (Insurance Information Institute, 2018). Wildland fires result in massive losses of property and human lives every year, with The Camp Fire of 2018 becoming the deadliest in California state’s modern history, costing the life of over 88 people (Lam, 2018; Nicas & Fuller, 2018). Fire seasons are lengthening as fires grow larger than ever before and costs are skyrocketing as developments near forest boundaries place human lives at stake (NIFC, n.d.; USDA, n.d.).

To meet the challenges, the Forest Service and its partners have developed and are implementing a National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy that includes Safe and Effective Wildfire Response as one of its key components (USFS, n.d.).  The ‘Safe and Effective Wildfire Response’ includes the more than 10,000 professional firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service that respond to wildland fires (USFS, n.d.). Firefighters put their lives at risk every time they respond to an emergency call (Campbell & Dalsey, 2012). According to the Forest Service’s ‘Management Strategy,’ “U.S. Forest Service firefighters on the ground and in the air must be highly trained, skilled, and experienced in order to safely protect lives, property, and valuable natural and cultural resources when they are threatened by wildfires as well as to manage fire to play its natural role in the environment under certain conditions,” (USFS, n.d.).

A wildland fire is usually uncontrolled, unless it is a prescribed burn used for wildlife fire management, and is located mainly in forest areas, although it may quickly spread to agricultural and urban regions, as well (Molina-Pico, Cuesta-Frau, Araujo, Alejandre, & Rozas, 2016).  The growing number of wildland fires in the United States requires a greater corresponding number of firefighters who are willing to put their safety on the line in order to reduce property loss and protect human lives. Recent literature indicates that the increase in the frequency and intensity of wildland fires has led to a higher number of firefighter fatalities and injuries (Withen, 2015). Wildland firefighting:

“typically requires longer (12–16+ hour days), arduous work shifts (4,000–6,000 calories expended a day) for up to 14 continuous days and is coupled with multiple environmental stressors, resulting in an occupation that is characterized as challenging and high-risk” (Butler, Marsh, Domitrovich, & Helmkmp, 2017, p. 258).

Most wildland firefighters are employed by government agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service or state agencies, such as the Florida Division of Forestry (Reinhardt & Ottmar, 2004). Wildland firefighters receive extensive training prior to being deployed to a fire. Training and education modules can be found on the Wildland Fire Safety Training Annual Refresher (WFSTAR) website (WFSTAR, n.d.). Modules on equipment, including personal protective equipment (PPE), appear to focus on preparedness for the job at hand, i.e. the right tools and protective apparel, before leaving the base camp. Although vital information for the firefighter, additional information on the importance of base layers and care of PPE could enhance the comfort, health and wellbeing of the wildland firefighter.

Wildland firefighters operate on a 2:1 work/rest cycle (for every two hours of work, the firefighter receives 1 hour of rest or sleep) for shift lengths of 24 hours, running concurrently for 14 day periods with a mandatory break of only 2 days between assignments (Missoula Technology and Development Center, 2002; TriData Corporation, 1998).  There are different types of wildland firefighters with Type I and Type II crews responding from the air (smokejumpers and helitack) and the ground (handcrews, hotshots, and engine) (USFS, n.d.; Reinhardt & Ottmar, 2004; D. L. Smith, Petruzzello, Kramer, & Misner, 1997) with each firefighter conducting specialized tasks that are key to fire suppression (USDA, n.d.). Typical tasks for a firefighter can include operating various machinery like water pumps, digging trenches, felling trees, communicating with other members of the crew, hiking into fire locations, and more. During their long shift durations firefighters are exposed to multiple environmental stressors including increased altitude, heat, humidity, fatigue, and smoke exposure. With the limited amount of personal gear firefighters can pack when deployed (generally only two sets of protective gear), soiled clothing is used repeatedly before changing or cleaning which may cause chafing of the skin.

Firefighters must also be able to physically carry a heavy pack of supplies while walking over rough terrain to reach fires. They are trained to fight a wide range of dangers including the risk of burnover, falling trees, rolling rocks, and carbon monoxide exposure, along with many others (National Fire Equipment System, 2014; National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, n.d.; Withen, 2015). There are also regional differences which create hazards for wildland firefighters. For instance, firefighters in the Southern region must contend with extreme heat and humidity on top of the heat generated by a wildfire. While firefighters in the Western regions are more likely to be affected by toxic plants (poison oak, ivy, or sumac) (Britton et al., 2013).

As described, wildland firefighters encounter multiple hazards while on the job. To protect them from such hazards, they rely on personal protective clothing (PPC) and equipment (PPE). The effectiveness of protective clothing is dependent on numerous factors, including textile properties, clothing design, and appropriate fit. The following issues with wildland firefighting protective clothing have been expressed by end users: heat stress, improper fit, reduced mobility, and garment durability. Further investigation of commercially available protective gear is needed to determine wildland firefighters protective clothing user needs. Issues relating to the interaction between the wearer, garment, equipment, and the environment should be explored.

Therefore, the purpose of this multistate project is to investigate the protective clothing needs of wildland firefighters in order to improve the protection, fit, comfort, durability, functionality, and mobility in a new prototype design. Once factors of issue for the firefighters have been identified through a needs assessment, materials and prototypes can be developed. Testing, design and redesign of the prototype can then be undertaken to find the best possible solutions. The prototype design will account for differences in firefighter anthropometrics, new fabric technologies, garment useful life, regional fire suppression activities, and wearable technologies to improve the health and safety of users.

The proposed project will have implications for several areas within the textiles and apparel field: apparel design, textile science, apparel production, and product innovation for human well-being. There is also the potential for this project to draw interest from our colleagues in the areas of forestry and natural resources. In order to sustain our natural resource systems, it is important that we address the safety and well-being of those individuals committed to the management of those resources.

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