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Helping Set the Standard

firefighters putting out house fire

By Jessica Roulhac

When first responders suit up to save lives, the personal protective gear they wear is made possible by countless contributors from around the world. Right here at home, researchers at the Wilson College of Textiles play their own role in research in testing. Four members within the college’s Textile Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC) are members of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). 

For more than three decades, TPACC Director and Burlington Distinguished Professor Roger Barker has served on an NFPA committee. Assistant Professor of TECS Bryan Ormond, Shawn Deaton, TPACC’s director of operations, and John Morton-Aslanis, a research associate at TPACC, also serve on NFPA committees. 

Every three to five years, the NFPA evaluates its collection of more than 300 standards. Established in 1896, the association welcomes public involvement, and anyone can join the process. While the NFPA does not enforce the standards, PPE is certified to NFPA by independent certification organizations. A centuries-old track record shows the value in wearing NFPA-compliant gear. The association has more than 250 technical committees that come to a consensus about the minimum testing standards. They gather with one goal in mind: to prevent injuries and save lives. 

The evaluation cycle recently began, and the NFPA breaks down the process into four steps: an invitation for public input, a dedicated time for public comment, a technical meeting, and finally, the presentation and acceptance of the standard. According to the NFPA, it can take about two years for a standard to complete the cycle.

Sometimes new standards are created. It is common to update existing codes, too. Committee members include everyone from firefighters to industry representatives to members of academia. With a front-row seat, Barker believes the TPACC research team is better informed to go back to the lab with a clear understanding of the firefighters’ most pressing needs.

“It’s not typical for academic scientists to be involved on NFPA committees, but I found it to be an excellent way to understand more about the firefighters’ needs,” Barker says. “This helps to drive our research agenda.”

Turning Down the Heat

Heat strain is one of the field’s most pressing challenges. It is also a top cause of injury and death. High temperatures are the culprit, and heat strain occurs when the body responds to an overwhelming amount of stress.

Less than a decade after TPACC’s launch in 1994, the center played an important role in setting a heat strain-specific standard within the NFPA.

“The original heat strain standard was established by NFPA around 2000,” Barker says. “One of the two studies that actually supported that decision was conducted in TPACC.”

Today, TPACC researchers are back in the lab, and it is time to update the heat strain testing standards. They have a legacy of taking detailed notes during technical meetings and returning to the lab to find a solution.

At one point, firefighters shared experiences about a different kind of burn. It wasn’t from the flames, and they hadn’t come in contact with chemicals. Even with protective clothing, firefighters were still coming home with burns.

Through testing, Barker and his team found the answer: stored energy or steam burns. Their feedback contributed to developing a test method for measuring stored thermal energy that influenced the standards for materials. 

Conversations that begin at committee meetings are leading the work. If the TPACC team can recreate the hazard and create a testing method for performance, Barker knows the work can save a first responder’s life. 

“It’s a very gratifying field of work, and it gives you something pretty tangible to think about as an outcome,” Barker says. “We publish our papers, of course, but we can look back and say that we had some role in helping to establish a standard that contributes every day to firefighter safety.”

This story is the first in a series highlighting TPACC and its contribution to NFPA standards. 

About the Textile Protection and Comfort Center

TPACC began in 1994, and it remains in a league of its own. With cutting-edge research leading the way, the TPACC team has contributed to new testing methods and materials. While becoming the leading go-to source for performance and protective clothing, the TPACC faculty members also provide hands-on training for students. From the sweating manikin to the highly popular ​PyroMan™, students have the opportunity to understand these ensemble systems.