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

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Active

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

Duration: 10/01/2019 to 09/30/2024

Administrative Advisor(s):


NIFA Reps:


Statement of Issues and Justification

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.

Related, Current and Previous Work

The PPC of wildland firefighters is highly complex. Due to the physically taxing nature of wildland firefighting, it is imperative that the protective clothing have numerous innate properties. Wildland firefighting PPC must first and foremost protect the wearer from long durations of thermal exposure. It must also be durable, breathable, fit appropriately, and allow for maximum movement. The fibers and fabrics used to make such garments must be inherently flame resistant and maintain protection throughout the garment’s useful life, withstanding multiple uses and launderings. At the same time, wildland PPC should also be breathable to reduce the onset of heat stress over long work durations. These garments must also continue to provide adequate comfort while excessively soiled. The potential for wearable technology advancements are also present for detecting carbon monoxide exposure and tracking the location of wildland firefighters. There are numerous factors to consider when designing and engineering protective clothing for wildland firefighters. The following areas of background literature will be highlighted in relation to this project: clothing fit and function, comfort of wildland PPE, design and sizing requirements, and textiles and protective clothing.


Clothing Fit and Function


Fit describes how apparel conforms to the human body (Petrova, 2005). Correct fit is related to correct sizing which is very important in protective clothing (Barker & Black, 2009; Barker, Black, & Cloud; 2010; Black & Cloud, 2008; Petrova, 2007; Torvi & Hadjisofhocleous, 1999). Many fit problems are caused by poor garment design. Product end use affects desired fit and should be a major consideration in the design process (Brown & Rice, 2001). Protective clothing typically worn by wildland firefighters consists of a single outer layer to both protect from radiant heat and maintain body temperature during a long workday (Nayak, Houshyar, & Padhye, 2014). A key feature of wildland protective clothing is its loose fit which ensures protection from radiant heat and heat stress, as ventilation is necessary to allow air and moisture to pass through the clothing microclimate to the external environment (Smith & Petrilli, 2013). A report presented at the April 1999 conference on wildland firefighter safety stated that “personal protective clothing strikes a balance between protection and worker comfort” (Sharkey, 1999, p. 33). The clothing should provide both comfort and protection. Proper fit is necessary for protective clothing in order for mobility and comfort to be achieved.


Comfort of Wildland Firefighting PPE


Comfort from a clothing perspective can be defined as the wearer being psychologically and physiologically unaware of the clothing. It is understood that comfort is a complex phenomenon that results from the interaction of many physical and non-physical stimuli from a person wearing textile products in specific environments (Branson & Sweeney, 1991). Due to the complexity of describing comfort from a clothing perspective, numerous models have been proposed by researchers to identify relevant variables and the relationships that exist between them (Branson & Sweeney, 1991; Fourt & Hollies, 1970; Pontrelli, 1977; Rohles, 1978; Slater, 1986; Sontag, 1985-1986). One group of researchers stated that:


Clothing which is worn in a work environment must have sufficient ease to allow the worker to move uninhibited…being perceived as comfortable by the wearer. If a garment restricts the wearer or is too large, wearer mobility and the level of protection the clothing provides can be adversely affected (Huck, J., Maganga, O, & Kim, Y., 1997, p. 45).


Recently, the question of comfort in the PPC for wildland firefighters was brought to the attention of the present research team. Comfort related issues, such as heat stress, cause fatigue which increases the risk of poor decision making and leads to injuries on the fire line. Other comfort related factors include fit, mobility, fabric hand (skin irritation), etc. Concerns raised by female wildland firefighters in particular call into question the impact that a lack of comfort might have on the full protective nature of firefighter gear. Since the early 1990s, there has been a significant increase in the number of female wildland firefighters employed by national agencies with women holding approximately 12% of the government’s permanent wildfire suppressions jobs (Fears, 2016).


Female firefighters have reported ill-fitting clothing, which created bruising and severe chafing leading to semi-permanent skin conditions. Although not as prevalent, their male counterparts have also experienced these issues. Female firefighters also encounter more significant issues with the lack of female-specific sizing standards, leading to improper fit of their protective clothing. Their male counterparts may also experience restricted movement and an increased risk of trips and falls due to improper fit linked to underdeveloped sizing standards. The concerns raised by female and male wildland firefighters warrant further investigation of the design and sizing of their PPC.


Design and Sizing Requirements


An examination of the NFPA 1977 design requirements for wildland firefighting uniforms indicates that sizing is based on body measurements, which were not defined for females separately until the most recent 2016 edition (National Fire Protection Association, 2015). However, for the upper torso garments (i.e. jacket) sizes are not separated by gender and therefore, female firefighters must select smaller, male-centric designed gear. There is no indication in the current edition of the standard that consideration was given to the differences in body type and anthropometrics except for the inclusion of “tall sizes” for sleeve and coat length (National Fire Protection Association, 2015).  Examination of several Wildland firefighter gear sites (The Fire Store, Ben Meadows, Fire Cache, Cascade Fire Equipment) reveal a relatively small number of protective apparel items designed specifically for women. 


Melissa Etehad (2017) provides insight into the problems female wildland firefighters face with their uniforms in her article in the Los Angeles Times. The female wildland firefighters she interviewed described their uniforms as baggy, heavy, and hot; causing them to be uncomfortable (Etehad, 2017).  These end users also described the garment proportions as incorrect for a woman’s body.  Specific problems included jacket sleeves being too long, the crotch of pants hanging below the knees, and pockets that were not in the right place, causing items to fall out.  These areas of improper fit cause firefighters to make accommodations—while working—such as rolling up their sleeves and using one hand to hold up their pants. Such actions add another element of danger to front-line duty. For example, interviewee Hannah Key, “grabs her pants from the waist to avoid tripping when she hikes or crawls over rocks, which slows her down,” (Etehad, 2017). Hannah fell from a rock after she lost her grip trying to use one hand to hold up her pants and the other to lift herself during a Yosemite fire in 2010 (Etehad, 2017). These examples illustrate the need to re-evaluate the design and fit of wildland PPC, not only for females but for males, as well.


Previous researchers have designed prototype protective garments for wildland firefighters (Huck, J. & Kim, Y., 1997; Rucker, Anderson & Kangas, 2000). They designed prototypes that were two-layer systems rather than the traditional single layer typically worn by wildland firefighters. The two-layer systems were shown to be significantly better in protecting a thermally instrumented mannequin than one-layer systems. Fit characteristics were also assessed and while small differences were observed they did not influence burn injury. However, fit characteristics were not evaluated from a comfort perspective (Rucker et al., 2000). Huck and Kim (1997) developed a prototype coverall for grass firefighting. Although the prototype was preferred to the coverall firefighters were wearing, there was a difference in the fabrics used for the prototype versus actual coverall fabrics which could have led to the preference of the prototype. Another limitation of this previous research was that Huck and Kim (1997) did not test their prototype under actual working conditions.


An integral part of any prototype development would be an evaluation of fit characteristics. Body scanning has been found to be a successful tool in fit evaluations. Testing procedures for assessment of garment fit using body scanners have been created and evaluated (Ashdown, Slocum, & Lee, 2005; Ashdown et al, 2004; Petrova, 2009; Petrova & Ashdown, 2008). Circumferential, slice area, surface area and volume data of body scans are the basis of analysis techniques developed to evaluate fit (Lee et al, 2006, Loker et al, 2005, Nam et al., 2005). These methodologies can be applied to analyzing functional clothing, and have been applied to firefighter protective clothing (McQuerry, 2018).


Textiles and Protective Clothing


Protective clothing has a finite life. Degradation of protective clothing is dependent upon a number of factors including:



  1. Materials used to manufacture the clothing.

  2. Exposure to high temperature and heat fluxes; exposure to UV radiation

  3. Wear and abrasion

  4. Maintenance procedures


In order to combat environmental factors such as high heat and flame exposure, wildland firefighters are required to don protective clothing that meets mandatory requirements for flame resistance, material strength, thermal protective performance, and launderability (National Fire Protection Association, 2016c). Hiring agencies are responsible for supplying wildland firefighting crews with the proper certified PPC. The NFPA 1977 Standard on Protective Clothing and Equipment for Wildland Firefighting covers the certification of all wildland firefighting PPC including the jacket and pants which are made of durable, aramid fabrics such that, if exposed to flame, burning will stop upon removal of the flame. In order to be certified, the developed wearable prototype within the proposed study must meet the design and performance requirements specified in NFPA 1977, 2016 edition.


Fibers and Fabrics


Traditionally, wildland firefighter clothing was made from natural fibers, such as cotton, and often impregnated with flame retardants. Popular synthetic fibers such as polyester and nylon are deemed unacceptable due to their thermoplastic nature, causing them to melt if exposed to fire, and stick to the skin, aggravating burn injuries. The two most common fibers typically used for protective clothing are aramids (poly-m-phenylene isophthalamide) and PBI (polybenzimidazole). Research has been conducted on the degradation of these fibers after thermal exposure and aging. Influential factors in thermal aging include temperature, duration, and frequency of exposure. Researchers (Iyer, Sudhakar & Vijayan, 2006; Jain & Vijayan, 2002) have found that tensile strength decreases and damage to surface fibers increases as temperature and length of exposure increase. Of the aramid fibers, meta-aramids (Nomex®) are more heat resistant and thermally stable than para-aramid fibers (Kevlar®). However, blends of the two fibers have demonstrated less thermal shrinkage, particularly if the para-aramid component exceeds 30%. (Barker, Geshury, & Behnke, 1996). Day, Cooney and Suprunchuk (1988) also found that meta-aramids had significant tear strength loss after being exposed to temperatures up to 250o C in a convection oven. These studies explain why meta- and para-aramid fibers are often found blended together in the same fabric for firefighter PPC. Such a blend offers a superior combination of thermal resistance, strength, and durability.


In terms of material performance and longevity, UV exposure must also be considered when determining the useful life of the garment. Wildland firefighters are exposed to considerable amounts of sunlight during firefighting operations. Exposure for prolonged periods to UV radiation results in photochemical reactions in most synthetic and natural fibers (Day et al., 1988). Day et al. (1988) found that aramids underwent photodegradation after exposure to UV radiation resulting in significant fading of dyed samples. Such degradation may also represent a loss in tenacity, or strength, which could lead to failure of NFPA performance requirements for tear and sewn seam strength. Ultimately, changes due to UV radiation depend on specific fabric type (Davis, Chin, Lin, & Petit, 2010).


Interaction between PPC, the Firefighter, and the Environment


In fighting wildland fires, firefighters are involved in various physical activities where their protective clothing is affected. First and foremost, their PPC must withstand exposure to fire and other environmental elements. As they work for long periods of time for repeated shifts/days, clothing becomes extremely soiled from smoke, ash, perspiration and, in some cases, fire retardant that has been dropped from a helicopter or airplane. Maintenance of their clothing requires laundering, a process that affects materials both chemically and mechanically (Slater, 1991). Due to the severity of the potential contamination of their clothing, wildland firefighter PPC may need to be laundered at a higher temperature which can quicken degradation of the fabric and seams.


Intense physical activity and interaction with forest brush also leads to abrasion and wear due to frictional and other forces. These forces can cause microcracks in fabrics eventually resulting in mechanical failure (Slater, 1991). These frictional forces between the body and the clothing also create the potential for skin abrasion which is exacerbated when wearing ill-fitting clothing resulting in chafing and skin irritation. In addition, anytime a textile is placed over the skin the hydration level of the stratum corneum (SC) may be affected. If hydration levels are increased then the skin becomes more susceptible to abrasive damage, may absorb chemicals more readily, and may become more prone to microbial growth (Zimmerer, Lawson, & Calvert, 1986). In addition, when the hydration level of SC increases, comfort is compromised; as the hydration level increases, comfort decreases (Cameron, Brown, Dallas, & Brandt, 1997).


New Developments for Wildland PPC


Multiple wildland firefighting reports and studies cite technology and next generation uniforms as the way of the future for improving wildland firefighter health and safety (Griffin, 2015; Molina-Pico et al., 2016; Ramkumar, 2016; Withen, 2015). Research by Bellinger (1994) focused on the development of wildland firefighting protective clothing that improved wearer safety, comfort, and mobility. In this study, the development of a prototype ensemble involved the configuration of a composite material utilizing new carbon fiber technology (Bellinger, 1994). This fiber had superior flame resistance to fibers available on the market at the time. Textile testing on the composite material indicated it would provide wildland firefighters with better protection from flame than the present fabric, Nomex® IIIA (Bellinger, 1994). Additional research of materials and garment technologies on the market today is needed to optimize the development of a new wildland PPC prototype.


When considering new material developments, their performance over the useful life of the product must also be considered. A review of the literature did not identify any research report evaluating the durability of wildland firefighter PPC, especially post-use. Wildland firefighters are required to wear protective clothing that meets NFPA 1977 requirements for flame resistance, tensile strength, thermal protective performance, and care. As with other NFPA standards, the certification of the PPC is based on new fabrics and/or garments but evaluations of the PPC after use are not required. Previous findings from research conducted by McQuerry, et al. (2015) on structural firefighter PPC demonstrated that gear as old as just two to three years did not meet the NFPA standard performance requirements in more than one area (McQuerry, Klausing, Cotterill, & Easter, 2015). Therefore, the same research should be conducted on current wildland firefighter PPC to determine its useful life after exposure to real world elements, which also includes exposure to laundering. Aramid clothing should be cleaned or replaced whenever soiled, especially when soiled with petroleum products. Aramid clothing should be replaced when the fabric is extensively worn as to reduce the protection capability of the garment or it is so faded as to significantly reduce the desired visibility qualities. This further supports a post-use analysis of wildland firefighting PPC.


Beyond the limited studies mentioned above, new material technologies have not been heavily explored for wildland protective clothing. Therefore, further research is needed to assess how current fabrics compare to new textile technologies (fiber, fabric, and finishes) for their ability to improve wearer protection and clothing system functionality. Overall, much opportunity for improvement exists for the development of a wildland firefighting protective ensemble that improves the safety, fit, and function of the wearer.

Objectives

  1. Assess and improve protection and performance of wildland firefighter protective clothing through user needs assessment, market assessment, and product development.
    Comments: Assess and improve protection, ergonomics, and performance of wildland firefighter protective clothing through product development in the domain areas of fit, sizing, social/psychological needs of users, durability, and personal monitoring.
  2. Educate wildland firefighters and other stakeholders on the selection, proper use, and maintenance of protective clothing.
    Comments: Educate wildland firefighters and other stakeholders on selection of garments, proper use, and maintenance of protective clothing and its overall functionality; -produce educational materials; –address selection of garments and issues that impact maintenance, in particular laundry.
  3. Perform a post-use evaluation of wildland firefighter protective clothing to understand how use and care impacts performance, durability, and wear life.
    Comments: Perform a post-use evaluation of wildland firefighter protective clothing to understand how use and care impacts performance, durability, and wear life. Determine the durability and degradation of new wildland firefighter protective clothing materials over the wash (i.e. abrasion resistance, shrinkage/elongation, soiling, strength, and colorfastness) lifespan.
  4. Investigate the feasibility of incorporating wearable technology for biophysical monitoring (i.e. heart rate, breathing rate, and skin temperature), carbon monoxide exposure, and GPS location tracking in wildland firefighting PPE to enhance health and safety.
    Comments: Investigate the feasibility of incorporating wearable technology for biophysical monitoring (i.e. heart rate, breathing rate, and skin temperature), carbon monoxide exposure, and GPS location tracking in wildland firefighting PPE to enhance health and safety; -research technologies that can provide desired functions; -evaluate the performance of the technologies for personal protective applications; -establish guidelines and/or standards for incorporating these technologies into wildland firefighter PPE.
  5. Evaluate the physiological comfort and ergonomic mobility of wildland firefighter PPE, including a newly designed prototype uniform.
    Comments: Evaluate the physiological comfort and ergonomic mobility of wildland firefighter PPE, including a newly designed prototype uniform; -evaluate through full systems human wear testing.

Methods

Objective 1. Assess and improve protection and performance of wildland firefighter protective clothing through user needs assessment, market assessment, and product development.

Participating States:  GA, IA, ID, LA, WA

To accomplish this objective, a multi-method approach will be adopted in order to investigate the current status of wildland firefighter PPC, to determine unmet clothing needs, and to propose improvements to wildland firefighter apparel. Inquiries with firefighters, a market assessment of current product offerings, and anthropometric research will all contribute to this objective.

We will conduct an online survey with closed and open-ended questions to understand the unmet clothing needs of wildland firefighters, particularly in regard to garment fit and function.  We will also strive to understand the social and psychological factors associated with wildland firefighting gear. GA, IA, ID, LA, and WA will conduct a survey with wildland firefighters in regards to their clothing needs to understand: social factors, psychological factors, safety, fit, ease of movement, and length of shift issues related to clothing. Special attention will be paid to specific regional differences (such as climate, vegetation, terrain, hazards) which can affect job performance.

GA, IA, LA, and WA will conduct a market assessment to understand wildland firefighters’ current options for obtaining firefighting ensembles. Companies (such as CrewBoss), producing current wildland firefighter PPE will be solicited to obtain sample garments. Garments will be measured and assessed for fit, construction, and function. Sizing and recommended size tables for firefighters will also be examined. Additionally, online wildland firefighter forums will be consulted to determine what types of home modifications are currently being made to wildland firefighter apparel.

IA and LA will conduct an anthropometric analysis of a representative sample of wildland firefighters. Special attention will be paid to obtaining major measurements used for developing sizing of firefighter apparel, such as waist, hips, chest, and height. This data will be compared to sizing charts utilized by PPC companies and also those used by the USFS to determine if current sizing standards are appropriate. If these standards are not appropriate, then a new sizing system will be created. Special attention will be paid to the sizing of apparel related to female firefighters as well as garments which are marketed as unisex.

Objective 2. Educate wildland firefighters and other stakeholders on the selection, proper use, and maintenance of protective clothing.

Participating States: ID, FL, KY, NC, LA

ID and LA will develop a written survey to ascertain wildland firefighters’ (post fire) use and maintenance of their protective clothing. The survey will be distributed electronically to wildland firefighters. Analysis of this data will help determine the type and scope of educational materials and training needed to maintain ideal performance of wildland firefighter PPC. New educational materials will be developed based on these results.

The new educational materials and training curriculum developed will then be pilot tested with wildland firefighter crews, both inter-agency crews and contractual crews. Pre and post-test assessment will be used to test the efficacy of the educational materials developed. The results of this assessment will then be used to modify educational materials and training curriculums and presented to appropriate agencies (i.e. Extension Service, regional USFS headquarters) for distribution. As the project progresses, educational materials will be updated and distributed to various wildland firefighter stakeholders.

As a final step in the education piece of this project, the researchers from FL, KY, and NC will provide input to the technical standardization committee on NFPA 1977 to improve the draft standard “Protective Clothing and Equipment for Wildland Fire Fighting.” In order to effect change in the wildland firefighter PPE industry, government standards and regulating bodies must be aware of and open to accepting new design and material changes. Oftentimes, this involves the submission of proposed revisions and appendices to current standards, test methods, and evaluation procedures. The final step in this project will involve meeting with the NFPA 1977 technical standard committee for wildland firefighting protective clothing, as well as the U.S. Forest Service, to present the final prototype design and discuss the need for potential design and performance requirement updates.

Objective 3. Perform a post-use evaluation of wildland firefighter protective clothing to understand how use and care impacts performance, durability, and wear life.

Participating States: FL, KY, NC

Critical material performance characteristics of wildland firefighting protective clothing will be assessed across the wear life. Used wildland shirts and trousers of different materials and fabrication will be pulled out of service at various dates from manufacture (between 1-10 years) in order to assess the garments’ ability to meet NFPA 1977 Standard on Protective Clothing and Equipment for Wildland Fire Fighting performance requirements.

KY and FL will be responsible for coordinating and collecting used wildland firefighter protective garments from geographic regions across the United States where fire suppression activities occur. Funding will be sourced to replace those garments taken out of service. KY and FL will work with the wildland firefighting crews to record as much use history for each garment as possible. A representative sample of garments of different materials (i.e. para- and meta-aramid blends), fabrications (i.e. fabric weight, count, thickness, etc.), and styles (i.e. U.S. forest service versus commercial market) will be obtained. 

The Textile Lab at Florida State University will be responsible for receiving all post-use garments, creating the garment database, and conducting an advanced visual inspection for each item.  FL will perform the flammability, abrasion, and tear resistance testing.  KY will perform the cleaning shrinkage, bursting strength, seam strength, and breaking strength assessments in the Textile Testing Lab at the University of Kentucky. NC will provide general scientific support and perform the test method assessments requiring highly specialized equipment including heat and thermal shrinkage, Total Heat Loss (THL), Radiant Protective Performance (RPP), and Thermal Protective Performance (TPP). Specimens for testing will be cut from the post-use garments by the FSU Textile Lab in FL and shipped to the Textile Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC) at North Carolina State University and the UK lab for conditioning and testing.

Results from the post-use evaluations will be analyzed to determine necessary material improvements for performance and durability across the wildland firefighting protective clothing wear life. Based on these results, the researchers will collaborate with material developers and suppliers to communicate the need for performance and durability improvements of new materials. As a sub-objective, new materials will be assessed for durability and degradation (i.e. abrasion resistance, shrinkage/elongation, soiling, strength, and colorfastness) over the wash lifespan. KY will lead the wash durability study efforts, including performance testing, with oversight from the investigators in FL and NC. Evaluations will occur over the course of multiple wash cycles.

Objective 4:  Investigate the feasibility of incorporating wearable technology for biophysical monitoring (i.e. heart rate, breathing rate, and skin temperature), carbon monoxide exposure, and GPS location tracking in wildland firefighting PPE to enhance health and safety.

Participating States: FL, NC

This portion of the project will determine the need and feasibility of integrating wearable technology in wildland firefighter PPE for health and safety improvements. An assessment of monitoring technologies that currently exist and are being developed on the market will be linked to the functional safety needs of wildland firefighters. This technology may include, but is not limited to, biophysical monitoring, toxin exposure, and GPS location tracking.

NC will lead efforts to study and assess and enhance a location tracking system to locate wildland firefighters in remote, sometimes GPS-denied locations. In tandem, sensor technologies to detect harmful levels of carbon monoxide, and potentially other harmful gases, will be studied. Alert systems will also be studied and concepts created to inform firefighters when they have been exposed to dangerous levels of toxic gases. Each system may be tested in the laboratory individually to determine its validity. The separate systems will then be integrated into a wearable prototype concept. Garment location areas for implementation will be evaluated in order to develop an improved prototype. A single command, or communication system is envisioned to integrate the location tracking and gas exposure monitoring technologies.

Market adoptability is important to achieve actualized improvements for the health and safety for wildland firefighters. Any wearable technology prototype must be realistic or commercialization will not be possible. To ensure a prototype would meet the criteria for certification, according to the NFPA 1977 Standard on Protective Clothing and Equipment for Wildland Fire Fighting, textile durability testing will be conducted by researchers in FL and NC. Shrinkage, strength, and flame resistance testing will assess the performance of the additional materials added to the traditional wildland protective jacket and pants to support the technology system. This testing will verify the garment’s functionality and ability to be sold on the market. The conclusions of this phase will be marked by finalizing the wearable prototype design.

The final evaluation to investigate the feasibility of this wearable technology adoption for wildland firefighters will include simulated field tests to determine the communication ability of the location tracking system in remote areas, as well as the capability of the environmental monitoring sensor for detecting carbon monoxide exposure. This will be achieved through prescribed burns that will be conducted by the Tall Timbers Research Station located in Tallahassee, Florida. These realistic, simulated field trials will allow the researchers to gather environmental monitoring data from the carbon monoxide detection sensor. The GPS location tracking technology will also be verified for accuracy and effectiveness during the field trials. Although prescribed fire management is different from wildland firefighting, these field trials will provide proof of concept testing for the wearable technology system for both location tracking and carbon monoxide exposure detection. Performance and functionality issues with the system will be identified and corrected based upon the data and feedback from the field trials. This research will inform wildland firefighting PPE product developers of the usefulness and functionality of such technology.

Objective 5: Evaluate the physiological comfort and ergonomic mobility of wildland firefighter PPE, including a newly designed prototype uniform.

Participating States: FL, NC, KY

Investigation of the new prototype system developed from the research outcomes of objectives 1-4 will be assessed on the full, human systems wear level, to determine its impact on wearer comfort and ergonomic mobility. NC and FL researchers will use human thermal modeling software to ensure the prototype is tested under the most appropriate and realistic conditions for wildland firefighting. In conjunction with the field trial protocol developed to assess the wearable technology functions in objective 4, physiological measures (Tcore, Tskin, HR, nude body weight loss, ensemble weight gain, and perceived exertion, comfort, and temperature sensation) will also be collected in real time. If needed, a separate lab-based, environmentally controlled human wear trial will be conducted, in addition to the field trial.

A minimum of 8-10 firefighter participants will be recruited for statistical power after IRB approval is sought at all universities participating in this investigation. Initial thermal manikin testing for thermal and evaporative resistance will be conducted in NC at the Thermal Protective and Comfort Center (T-PACC) to compare the new prototype design to current wildland firefighting PPC currently on the market. This data will be used to model predictive physiological responses (core temperature, skin temperature, and sweat rate) in a multitude of different regional environments. The findings of this research will demonstrate the direct impact of current wildland firefighting PPC on the market versus the developed prototype on the human physiological burden. These results will quantify the heat transfer, heat loss, physiological comfort, and heat stress of wildland firefighters when performing their job under realistic conditions.

Measurement of Progress and Results

Outputs

  • Research activities will result in updated educational materials for users and designers of wildland firefighter PPC.
  • Survey and market assessment findings will be utilized to identify design parameters for improved wildland firefighting PPC.
  • Results of the body anthropometry study will describe ranges, proportions, variation, and gender differences in body measurements. This data pool will also provide practical implications for the design of PPC for improved fit, comfort and mobility.
  • Development of optimized sizing standards using market assessment feedback and collected anthropometric data.
  • Determination of the physiological comfort and ergonomic mobility of the prototype(s) which will provide further support for the proposed design solution.
  • Regional wildland firefighting differences related to environmental hazards will be identified. Design parameters based on these regional differences will be factored into the developed wildland firefighting prototype(s).
  • Post-use evaluation of wildland firefighter protective clothing will increase the understanding of how care and maintenance impacts performance, durability, and wear life.
  • Useful life of wildland firefighting PPE will be determined based on the findings of the post-use evaluation and the wash durability study.
  • Determination of the feasibility and efficacy of wearable technology incorporation in wildland firefighting PPC.
  • Development of improved personal protective clothing for wildland firefighting PPC.

Outcomes or Projected Impacts

  • Improved pant and jacket design will result in improved safety, comfort, and ability to function in hazardous conditions for wildland firefighters.
  • Development of an optimized sizing system for wildland firefighting PPC through the use of anthropometric data and current market offerings will improve fit.
  • The results of the human wear trial will inform industry designers, product developers, and manufacturers of the design and material changes that can be made to wildland firefighting protective clothing in order to improve wearer safety, comfort, and mobility.
  • Variations will be made to the proposed wildland firefighting PPC prototypes based on regional environmental hazards/differences. Factoring these differences into the proposed designs will enable firefighters to be better protected and comfortable in the vastly different regions of the country where wildfires occur.
  • Post-use evaluation of current wildland firefighter PPC will lead to optimized care procedures of these garments. These procedures will be communicated to wildland firefighters and other stakeholders to increase the useful life of the product.
  • Testing of new materials for wildland firefighter PPC will identify the most suitable materials for use in the developed prototype(s).
  • Necessary revisions to NFPA 1977, and other relevant U.S. Forest Service technical documents pertaining to wildland firefighting PPC, will be proposed to the appropriate committees.
  • Exploring and determining the feasibility of incorporating wearable technology for biophysical monitoring, carbon monoxide exposure, and GPS tracking could greatly improve the health and safety of wildland firefighters while deployed in the field.

Milestones

(2019):Initial survey with wildland firefighters in regards to the selection and care of PPC will be conducted. Market assessment of current wildland firefighter PPC offerings and sizing recommendations for wildland firefighters will occur. A post-use evaluation of wildland firefighter protective clothing will be performed to understand how use and care impacts performance, durability, and wear life. Educational materials will be prepared for wildland firefighters and other stakeholders regarding the selection, proper use, and maintenance of protective clothing. Funding sources will be identified and sought out for the project.

(2020):The anthropometric study of current wildland firefighters will be conducted. Data from this study will be compared to current sizing standards for wildland firefighter apparel. The post-use evaluation of wildland firefighter protective clothing will continue. Education of wildland firefighters and other stakeholders on selection, proper use, and maintenance of protective clothing will continue. Pursuit of funding sources will continue.

(2021):Wildland firefighter PPC prototypes will be developed and evaluated. An investigation of the feasibility of incorporating wearable technology for biophysical monitoring (i.e. heart rate, breathing rate, and skin temperature), carbon monoxide exposure, and GPS location tracking in wildland firefighting PPC to enhance health and safety will be conducted. The durability and degradation of new wildland firefighter protective clothing materials over the wash (i.e. abrasion resistance, shrinkage/elongation, soiling, strength, and colorfastness) lifespan will occur. Education of wildland firefighters and other stakeholders on selection, proper use, and maintenance of protective clothing will continue. Pursuit of funding sources will continue.

(2022):Variations for regional environmental challenges will be made to the wildland firefighter prototypes. A human wear trial to evaluate the physiological comfort and ergonomic mobility of wildland firefighter PPE, including a newly designed prototype uniform, will be designed. Education of wildland firefighters and other stakeholders on selection of garments, proper use, and maintenance of protective clothing will continue. Pursuit of funding sources will continue.

(2023):All project outputs will be completed and disseminated. Educational materials will be updated and distributed to various stakeholders including the USFS. Input will be provided to the technical standardization committee on NFPA 1977 to improve the draft standard “Protective Clothing and Equipment for Wildland Fire Fighting.”

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Outreach Plan

Educational materials will be developed in regards to function and care of protective clothing for wildland firefighters. Committee members from all participating states will contribute materials for this purpose. In addition, the results of the research conducted for this project will be made available through presentations at national/international meetings, through submissions to refereed and non-refereed publications, special technical publications, and the annual reports published through the NIMSS website. The following conferences will be targeted to reach wildland firefighting PPE producers and end users: Fire Industry Education Resource Organization (FIERO) PPE Symposium and the Fire Department Instructor’s Conference (FDIC). Trade and journal articles will be published in firefighting specific publications such as Fire Engineering, Fire Rescue, and Fire Technology. Research will also be disseminated through interactions with textile companies, PPC manufacturers, and standards bodies such as NFPA, ASTM, AATCC, and ISO. The online database developed as a result of the project will provide information directly to wildland firefighters and their respective agencies. Materials will also be disseminated through the University Extension System at member Land Grant Institutions networks of educators in counties across the country.

Organization/Governance

The proposed members of the technical committee for this project are listed in Appendix E. For those states having more than one participant, one member will be designated as the voting member, as determined by that institution or AES director. The organizational structure consists of a chair, a vice chair, and secretary nominated and elected annually; the vice chair serves as chair the next year. Any member of the technical committee can serve as an officer. Subcommittees of members will be appointed as necessary to complete specific tasks. The officers along with the project USDA-CSREES representative and USDA-ARS administrative advisor will serve as the executive committee. The advisors will be non-voting members.


Responsibilities of the chair include notifying the members of the date and place of the annual meeting, preparing the agenda, and presiding over the meeting. It will also be the responsibility of the chair to complete the annual report (SAES Form 422) for the year he/she serves as chair and submit it to the administrative advisor for distribution. The vice chair will assume the duties of the chair in the event that the chair cannot do so. The secretary will be responsible for taking minutes of the annual meeting and filing them with the administrative advisor for distribution within 30 days of the meeting.


The duties of the technical committee (members in Appendix E) are to coordinate the research and other activities related to the project. The technical committee will meet annually for the purposes of coordinating, reporting, and sharing research activities, procedures, and results, analyzing data, and conducting project business. The administrative advisor will be responsible for sending the technical committee members the necessary authorization for all official meetings.

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Attachments

Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

IA, ID, KY, LA, NC, WA

Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

Florida State University, Georgia Southern University
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