Skip to main content
Research and Innovation

TPACC Researchers Unveil “Game-changing” Technology to Test Firefighter Thermal Wear

“Dynamic PyroMan” improves upon NC State’s 30-year-old manikin, providing a window into how thermal wear performs in flames.

Dynamic PyroMan on fire in the Textile Protection and Comfort Center.
Pyroman in the Textile Protection And Comfort Center (TPACC) on Centennial campus. Photo by Marc Hall

When firefighters enter a burning building, the situation is, by its very nature, a matter of life and death.

With flames burning at an average of 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, how an emergency responder’s personal protective equipment performs under the immense heat can prove to be as critical as their own skills and fire fighting prowess.

Now, researchers at the Textile Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC) at NC State’s Wilson College of Textiles are unveiling an innovation that could prove to be the “holy grail” of developing the most cutting-edge thermal protective wear.

“We’re ready to open another door,” says Roger Barker, TPACC director and professor in the Wilson College.

Building on the legacy of “PyroMan”

For more than 30 years, TPACC researchers have tested firefighter suits and other thermal wear with the help of a life-size manikin known as “PyroMan.

A resident of TPACC’s 11-foot by 18-foot chamber, PyroMan frequently gets subjected to flash fire conditions as part of critical testing for thermal wear, such as firefighter suits.

After simulations, researchers can review data recorded by sensors on PyroMan’s “body,” which offer clues into how much heat a human’s skin might have felt underneath whatever garment they were wearing at the time — indeed, whatever garment PyroMan was wearing at the time.

The device has proved to be an invaluable tool since 1993, allowing NC State researchers to test fire and heat resistant suits worn not just by firefighters, but by members of the military and industrial employees, too.

Still, the manikin has had a clear shortcoming: It can’t move.

“The holy grail of this area has been, ‘How could you introduce movement into the test,’” Barker says. “That way, it would simulate what somebody would actually be doing, if they were in a fire.”

Now, TPACC researchers have accomplished just that.

Meet the new, “Dynamic Pyroman”

About three years ago, TPACC researchers began work on a new version of Pyroman.

Today, this state-of-the-art manikin has a similar name — but one that’s a clear ode to its more advanced capabilities. 

Meet “Dynamic PyroMan,” TPACC’s new and far more agile testing manikin.

TPACC researchers with Dynamic PyroMan in the Textile Protection And Comfort Center (TPACC) on Centennial campus.

In many ways, Dynamic PyroMan is similar to the existing technology: It fits in TPACC’s fire chamber. It’s life-size, capable of wearing a men’s size 42 jacket. And, it can be subjected to flash fire conditions conducted as part of research.

The biggest difference? This manikin can move.

Inside the fire-engulfed chamber, Dynamic PyroMan moves its arms and legs; to the untrained observer, it might look like it’s on an elliptical machine, Barker explains.

TPACC researchers developed Dynamic PyroMan with the help of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Assistance to Firefighters Grants, which provide funds for critical projects to equip and train emergency personnel. 

The primary goal: to make the testing manikin more closely reflect actual conditions faced by firefighters.

After all, picture a firefighter inside a burning building. At any moment, they may be reaching to assist a victim, clearing debris or operating a heavy piece of equipment.

They’re certainly not standing still.

“Our goal is to always simulate as close as possible to a real-world situation — what a firefighter would be wearing and doing what they would be doing,” Barker says. “So this gets us into that realm.”

Importantly, TPACC researchers have long known what happens during a fire exposure is important. So, too, is the way in which air moves between the human body and whatever garment a person is wearing.

For that reason, Barker’s team expects to find out a lot about fire protective suits by using a manikin that can move while engulfed in flames.

“We don’t have all the answers yet, but we think PyroMan is a tool that will really — and I don’t use this word lightly — revolutionize what we know about heat resistant materials and the design of heat resistant garments for fire protection,” Barker says.

It’s just the latest example of the type of innovative research underway at TPACC, where teams research, test and evaluate the comfort and protective performance of textile materials and garments under one roof — at the only such facilities of any U.S. university.

“The fact that we’re always trying to advance the technology, and look at things in a different way— such that it can really get close too a real life situation as much as possible— puts us still at the forefront of everything we do as it relates to protective clothing,” says TPACC Operations Director Shawn Deaton.

A patent on the new, moving PyroMan is still pending. The TPACC team hasn’t formally published any literature on the new Dynamic PyroMan just yet; the group is seeking more funding to advance certain features of the manikin to make it more durable to repeat testing.

It’s also open to industry and federal sponsors for projects that will utilize the capabilities of Dynamic Pyroman — capabilities, the team says, will be “potentially game-changing.”

“It’s a big deal because this is the first of its kind,” Deaton says. “It will allow us to evaluate protective clothing that nobody else has been able to do in terms of evaluating how the flames will affect the integrity of a garment.”