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TPACC Researcher Presents Findings to Leaders in Firefighting Industry

(F.I.E.R.O.) Symposium

By Sarah Stone

Researchers at the Wilson College of Textiles’ Textile Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC) are determining how firefighter suits can be changed to keep these first responders even safer. 

For the past three years, TPACC’s researchers have been studying how different suit materials combine with environmental factors to impact heat stress. The project, which was funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has resulted in two research publications and four manuscript submissions so far. 

Heat stress plays a gigantic role in firefighter safety. Cardiac incidents caused nearly 50% of firefighter deaths in 2020, according to Huipu Gao, a postdoctoral research scholar who worked on the project. He says most of those deadly cardiac incidents can be traced to heat stress. 

“Our research is trying to find a way to help firefighters find good firefighter clothing with good heat release properties,” Dr. Gao explains. 

Led by Director Roger Barker, TPACC used three forms of testing to study factors impacting heat stress: 

  1. Fabric level study
    Researchers tested 14 different firefighter suit materials using modified versions of the existing standards test. They changed the ambient conditions to see how heat loss changed for each of the materials.
  2. Garment level study
    In order to determine how other, non-fabric features of the suit and the air gaps between suit layers contribute to heat loss, the team measured heat loss using an advanced manikin. 
  3. Physiological modeling to determine how these material and garment properties can affect the body in different environmental conditions.

Based on their results, Gao and his colleagues suggest changing an existing National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard as a step forward in the path to reducing heat stress. 

“We’re proposing the addition of another index called evaporative resistance in addition to the existing total heat loss index for the NFPA 1971 heat stress requirement,” Gao says. 

Additionally, their research found that the color of the firefighter suits makes a difference when it comes to heat stress. Dark colored and contaminated fabrics absorbed significantly more heat from sunlight, which contributed to heat stress. Impermeable reinforcement materials in firefighter suits also increased the risk of heat stress. 

Last month, Gao presented the team’s findings and suggestions to firefighters and leaders in the personal protective equipment (PPE) industry at the 2021 PPE Fire Industry Education Resource Organization (F.I.E.R.O.) Symposium in Greenville, South Carolina. 

“I think that this project is really significant, and we’ve answered lots of questions for firefighters,” Gao says. 

TPACC Special Projects Director Shawn Deaton is also a member of the NFPA 1971 technical committee and has formally proposed the addition of the team’s evaporative resistance requirement. The committee will vote on this proposal in December.