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Would it surprise you to know that the most common cause of injuries to wildland firefighters is not burns?
When leaders at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) noticed their wildland firefighters were experiencing more heat stress injuries—like heat exhaustion and heat stroke—than burn injuries, they wanted to know why and how to prevent them. They soon realized their uniforms were part of the problem. Working with a team at the University of California, Davis, they developed technical and design specifications for a new uniform aimed at increasing the comfort and breathability while maintaining the current level of protection against flames.
In 2011, CAL FIRE approached the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate’s First Responders Group (FRG) requesting assistance in developing prototype garments. FRG began coordinating with CAL FIRE, California fire departments, and the U.S. Forest Service, who had previously established a working group of wildland firefighters to investigate improvements to their garments to address the heat exhaustion issue. After years of development and testing, the group collectively improved wildland fire advanced personal protection garments, and have published a report on FirstResponder.gov in the hopes of assisting other wildland firefighting organizations.
According to FRG Program Manager William Deso, the group considered improvements to the whole garment ensemble—undergarments, socks, shirt, and pants—during the effort. Deso partnered with the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center (Natick) to identify a fabric for undergarments that would not melt or drip, would wick away sweat, and would allow the material to breathe. DOD had already developed and issued an advanced fabric for undergarments and socks for deployed military members for use during thermal blasts. This allowed Deso and his team to focus on development of the shirt and pants.
“We were able to use garments that the Department of Defense (DOD) had previously developed and that saved time and money,” Deso explained. They then advertised to identify fabric manufacturers that met CAL FIRE’s specifications, and sent samples to North Carolina State University, which manages a leading personal protection equipment (PPE) laboratory, for verification testing.
In addition to developing the new shirt and pants with material that had better breathability, Deso worked with the wildland firefighters to ensure the actual garments were comfortable, more user-friendly, and better suited to their mission.
“We had a clothing designer come to our working group meeting,” Deso recounted. “He talked to them to find out what they wanted and required in order to make the garment functional for their specific tasks. He built a garment that incorporated the specific features identified by the firefighters and wore it to the next meeting so they could look at it on him and evaluate it. They provided input; he made adjustments.”
It took three iterations, but the wildland firefighters finally had the design they wanted. Deso distributed the garments and began testing in the field in late 2012, and received feedback from firefighters on the garments’ performance. Based on that feedback, FRG tweaked the uniform and distributed a limited number of a second-generation version for additional testing in 2013. Deso and his team documented the process, the fabric, and the garments’ performance in a report to allow other wildland firefighters, not just CAL FIRE, to benefit from the development effort.
Deso and the team hope that they can transition the PPE into the commercial market. Vendors are already indicating interest in making this a possibility by requesting the report and patterns. “We hope folks will use the report and that wildland firefighter procurement officials will compare what they currently have to what’s available. These new garments offer the same level or better of protection and are much more comfortable.”