WDC39: Improving Safety and Health of Wildland Firefighters Through Personal Protective Clothing

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Active

WDC39: Improving Safety and Health of Wildland Firefighters Through Personal Protective Clothing

Duration: 10/01/2017 to 09/30/2018

Administrative Advisor(s):


NIFA Reps:


Statement of Issues and Justification

Throughout most of the past decade wildland fires have dominated natural resource management issues. There appears to have been an increase in the prevalence of large scale wildland fires throughout the United States in recent years; a large scale fire event takes place every two-three years (USDA Forest Service, 2010). In fact, over the past 10 years there have been at least 60 fires over 100,000 acres in size in the Western United States (Peterson, 2011). This does not include the large scale fires during the 2011 season in Texas and other states outside of the region. The increase of wildland fire activity has forced natural resource managers to focus more of their attention and resources on fire management (USDA Forest Service, 2010). The operational budget resources directed to fire management have focused primarily on prevention and intervention. Not only have operational budget resources been directed to prevention and intervention management efforts but so has wildland fire research dollars. An area of research focus that has been lacking is the human resource factor. Not only is it important to factor in the human element in wildland urban interface (WUI) related issues but it is also important to direct attention to those in the heat of the battle, the wildland firefighters.
Firefighters can be assigned to a fire for up to 14 days and in many cases up to 12-hour shifts. During their assignments firefighters face a multitude of challenges and hazards in the field. To be fully prepared for dangerous situations firefighters must be properly trained and equipped. Personal gear of firefighters must be designed for protection, comfort, physiological and psychological, fit, during a prolonged use. With the limited amount of personal gear firefighter can pack when deployed (generally only two sets of protective gear that can be packed), soiled clothing is used repeatedly before changing or cleaning. Soiling through smoke, ash, perspiration, and, in some cases, fire retardant that has been dropped from helicopters or airplanes can eventually cause clothing to lose shape creating a poor fit. Under certain conditions soiled clothing may cause chafing and bruising of the skin.

The effectiveness of protective clothing is dependent on numerous factors, including textile properties, clothing design and appropriate fit. Further investigation of commercially available protective gear is needed to determine how current garments are meeting or not meeting the needs of firefighters. Issues relating to the interaction between the wearer, garment, equipment, and the environment have been raised. Traditionally, wildland firefighter clothing has been made from natural fibers, usually cotton, sometimes impregnated with flame retardants. Popular synthetic fibers such as polyester are deemed unacceptable because if they get too hot from exposure to fire, the material will melt and stick to the skin, aggravating burn injuries. Aramid fibers are considered superior to natural fibers because they absorb some of the heat upon melting when exposed to fire, lessening burns to the skin underneath.
Circumstances such as, when a firefighter is too hot due to poor thermal properties of a garment potentially leading to heat stress (Sharkey, 1999), or the garment design does not allow for ease of movement while performing the tasks of the job (Sharkey). The principal agency in Louisiana responsible for fighting wildland fires is the state Office of Forestry. Their firefighters natural fiber clothing is gradually being replaced by aramid fiber clothing as budgets permit. They require each firefighter to have at least five pairs of firefighting pants. However, the transition is not being met with complete enthusiasm. There have been cases of heat stroke while wearing Kevlar-impregnated Nomex pants because the material has no breathability (de Hoop, personal conversation 2012). Use of fabric suitable for hot weather is compounded by the fact that pants must be resistant to fraying from briars. Resistance to fraying is important because fraying reduces flammability resistance of the material  it produces more surface area to catch fire. The 6.5 oz. Nomex pants are often worn out in one day. The Kevlar-Nomex mix pants are needed to resist briars better, but they are more expensive, and, again, they have no breathability (de Hoop, personal conversation 2012).
Garment design factors must be balanced with cost effectiveness both in terms of monetary and human resources. Basic work in human factors related to protective clothing for wildland firefighters is required to develop the knowledge base. 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 protective clothing can then be undertaken to find the best possible solutions.

Recently the question of comfort in the personal protective clothing for wildland firefighters was brought to the attention of the researchers (personal communication). Issues raised by female wildland firefighters in particular call into question not only the comfort factor of the personal protective clothing but also the impact that lack of comfort might have on the full protective nature of firefighter gear. Female firefighters reported ill-fitting clothing, which created bruising and severe chaffing leading to semi-permanent skin conditions. Comfort related issues are also believed to distract firefighters causing them to lose focus while on the fire line. Informal conversations with male wildland firefighters revealed that they are faced with comfort issues similar to those raised by the females. If this proposed research is not conducted it will be a disservice to wildland firefighters because it is evident that even from brief informal discussions the protective clothing currently utilized is not fulfilling their needs. As a result the wildland firefighters are potentially being subject to health and safety issues.

Multi state research projects enable researchers, designers, and stakeholders to collaborate in the development of new technologies and their further refinement. The ultimate goal of the proposed project is to create and test prototypes of protective clothing and gear for wildland firefighters. To successfully develop and test prototype gear, an in-depth needs assessment with input from active wildland firefighters will be conducted. The needs assessment will be used to identify specific concerns and issues with the current gear. The approach that we have designed for this project is broadly divided into four major stages: (a) in-depth needs assessment, (b) materials research, (c) garment design development and testing, and (d) education and communication of results. The process of moving from concept to outcome requires collaborative work within and between the different stages of the process.

The successful completion of the proposed multi-state project will enable the creation of protective clothing for wildland firefighters that have enhanced function and comfort. In addition, the research to be undertaken will allow information to be provided to wildland firefighters which will improve their understandings of use and care of their protective clothing.

Objectives

  1. Develop a proposal for a renewal of W2192

Procedures and Activities

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan

Organization/Governance

Literature Cited

Attachments

Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

IA, NC, NY

Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

Florida State University
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