Firefighters face an ever increasing list of enemies in post 9/11 America. Fire still poses the biggest threat, but now concerns about the possibility of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) risks from terrorist attacks demand that experts rethink the basic first line defense that every firefighter shares -- turnout gear.
Important progress in CBRN protection is expected this year. An option governing minimum CBRN protection is included in the revised National Fire Protection Association standard on structural fire fighting gear due for release in August. Also, two federally funded projects assigned identical missions to develop CBRN protection in structural turnout gear are scheduled to reach their product phase.
Imagine protective gear sold like different grades of fuel at a gas station. Gear complying with the CBRN option of the new NFPA 1971 standard rates as "regular," less costly but good enough to get the job done. By contrast, gear designed to meet the CBRN option under either Project HEROES or CB.Ready names provides additional performance when needed most.
"It's essentially a premium standard," said protective clothing consultant Jeff Stull, affiliated with Project HEROES.
Bill Grilliot, president and CEO of Total Fire Group, which includes Morning Pride Manufacturing, said his company is devoting most of its product development efforts to meeting the more stringent requirements set in both cases.
"Everything is going to change a little bit," Grilliot said. "The whole ensemble including boots, gloves, helmets and the gear itself -- our bread and butter products -- are being tweaked to meet the new requirements."
Originally, NFPA planned to issue its revised NFPA 1971 standard in January. This changed suddenly in December when NFPA announced a six-month postponement.
In an e-mail dated Dec. 5, NFPA senior fire service safety specialist Bruce W. Teele stated that producing "the best document possible with need for TIAs and errata after publishing" made the postponement necessary.
Both the technical committee and the technical correlating committee will review the document and vote again on the report on proposals (ROP) so that "procedures are preserved and correct and a clean document (or as clean as possible) is produced," Teele writes. The NFPA editors will provide a complete "preprint" of the final document when the report on changes (ROC) is published in late February.
"This delay also means that NFPA 1994, 06 Edition, and NFPA 1971, 06 Edition, both addressing CBRN protection for emergency responders, will be issued simultaneously," Teele writes. NFPA 1994 deals with protective clothing designed strictly for protection against terrorist attacks.
NFPA set itself a daunting task with the revision of NFPA 1971 last year. In addition to establishing a CBRN option for turnout gear, NFPA 1971 merges requirements for both structural turnout gear and proximity gear, formerly covered in NFPA 1976, into one standard.
That consolidation was logical, said Grilliot.
"If you reviewed the old NFPA 1971 standard for structural gear and the old NFPA 1976 standard for proximity gear they are almost mirror images," Grilliot said. "The only differences are minor, such as structural gear requires trim and proximity does not."
Protective clothing consultant Jeff Stull said combining the two standards, together with adding the CBRN option, has been an "editorial nightmare."
"It's about 160 pages with a lot of technical detail," he said. "A number of corrections were made to come up with a version everybody agreed on."
Other changes are more basic to fire fighting. NFPA 1971 will now require a "drag rescue device," a strap or recessed handle in the back of the turnout coat near the collar to drag downed firefighters to safety. Lion Apparel recently chose to release its patent on a drag rescue device designed to cinch up under a firefighter's arms, making him easier to drag.
"It seemed like a good thing to do," said Nick Curtis, Lion Apparel's vice president of product development. "NFPA doesn't like to write standards that drive advantages toward one or two manufacturers, particularly if there are patents involved. We just released the patent so there wouldn't be any contention from our competitors."
NFPA 1971 also seeks to reduce heat stress on firefighters. The total heat loss (THL) requirement, which measures the breathability of the moisture barrier, will leap from 130 watts per square meter to 205 watts per square meter. Likewise, the requirement for compressive conductive heat resistance has been increased. This measures how fast areas needing extra reinforcement such as shoulders, elbows and knees heat up. The longer it takes, the greater the heat resistance.
Moisture barriers will now be subject to testing using ultra violet light as a way to increase durability. This new standard is expected to eliminate several moisture barrier fabrics on the market today. To allow better interface with some helmets, the new standard reduces the minimum collar height from four to three inches.
For brigades and departments who choose to integrate CBRN protection into structural fire fighting gear, the CBRN option in NFPA 1971 sets the minimum requirements. Above all, when you purchase turnout gear under the CBRN option it must be purchased as a total ensemble -- turnout coat, turnout pants, boots, gloves, hood and helmet designed to operate as a single ensemble, Stull said.
"You can't buy gloves from one person and a hood from somebody else," he said. "These items have to be tested and certified as part of a stand-alone ensemble. It's important to know that things fit and work together to prevent any hazardous substances coming in contact with the skin."
To test for this, the new NFPA 1971 requires Man-In-Simulant testing (MIST), also used on garments specifically designed for Class 2 CBRN protection under the new edition of NFPA 1994. MIST is also an important component of the two federally funded CBRN/turnout gear projects presently under way, replacing the more severe sodium hexafluoride (SF6) test that has been the integrity test for Class 2.
"A surrogate chemical agent that simulates CBRN is released into an enclosed environment," Stull said. "Absorbent Pads that register the penetration of the surrogate agent inside the ensemble are applied to the firefighter's skin. The firefighters, wearing the ensemble, then exercise in that environment. Any chemical that passes through the ensemble is absorbed by the pads."
Stull describes the new NFPA 1971 CBRN requirements as "rigorous."
"It's not an easy thing to certify to," he said. "The material requirements and integrity test are really tough. The standard also has some difficult durability requirements to meet."
With NFPA 1971 as a basic foundation, the two federally funded CBRN/turnout gear projects take CBRN protection to the next level. In both cases, this research is being performed under a contract from the Technical Support Working Group (TSWG), an organization that supports national objectives combating terrorism by coordinating research and development efforts. With money from the Department of Homeland Security, the goal of these parallel projects is to produce familiar turnout gear that meets all the requirements for structural fire fighting while providing CBRN protection as well.
Spearheaded by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFC), Project HEROES (Homeland Emergency Response Operational and Equipment Systems) aims at developing a new generation of improved protective clothing for firefighters. Project HEROES includes Total Fire Group, Stull's International Personal Protection, International Association of Fire Chiefs, NIOSH's National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory, the University of Arkansas and the University of Massachusetts.
For CB.Ready, researchers at the Textile Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC) within the College of Textiles at North Carolina State University have taken the lead.
TSWG tasked Project HEROES and CB.Ready to rapidly develop, prototype and place in the field structural firefighting gear that provides improved CBRN protection without sacrificing thermal protection, comfort and functionality. This involves identifying candidate materials, addressing interfaces between ensemble elements and defining the levels of necessary protection.
Finding a replacement for the conventional moisture barrier, usually the middle layer of the fire clothing composite, was critical. For this purpose, a CBRN barrier layer has been substituted for the moisture barrier, retaining the normal three layer construction. However, the CBRN layer must demonstrate acceptable levels of permeation resistance to chemical warfare agents and selected toxic industrial chemicals while still meeting the normal requirements for flame and thermal resistance. It must also provide breathable performance to lessen the stress of wearing fire gear.
Stull, president of International Personal Protection, an Austin, TX, consulting firm specializing in protective gear, is one of the key players in Project HEROES.
"The CBRN barrier is a material called ChemPak made by W.L. Gore & Associates," he said. "It has been in use by the military for years. It's been fine tuned for work in the fire fighting arena."
For CB.Ready, DuPont is developing a fire-resistant, selectively permeable membrane that resists the intrusion of chemical and biological agent in addition to performing all the other functions of a conventional moisture barrier.
According to Mark Mordecai, director of business development for Globe Firefighting Suits, developing a new moisture barrier for CB.Ready has two basic issues.
"It's not just a matter of providing liquid resistance," Mordecai said. "It is also a matter of vapor resistance. They are related, but two separate challenges. The first challenge is what barrier can we put into this product that will be breathable to the new THL level of 205. It has to let moisture vapor pass through while, at the same time, excluding bad chemicals."
As a barrier, the liquid penetration test for keeping out chemicals is the hardest to accomplish, Mordecai said. A high concentration of liquid chemicals is placed in direct contact with the membrane for an extended period of time. MIST testing is also a deciding factor in the search for a new barrier material, Mordecai said.
"For the test we use methyl salicylate, which is oil of wintergreen," he said. "It's safe but has a molecule size similar to mustard gas."
Mordecai said the DuPont product is well advanced but still labeled with a product development number rather than a name at this point.
According to Stull, material used for the Project HEROES outer shell will change as well.
"We want the shell to be contamination resistant," he said. "Most of the materials in use come pretty close to that right now. We want them to shed liquids freely so that they don't become a sponge and pick up contaminants. We need something that will keep the gear cleaner and more functional."
CB.Ready will use commercially available outer shell material, Mordecai said. However, TPACC is developing a new thermal barrier as the inside layer of the turnout gear.
From the very beginning, TPACC was focused on minimizing the weight of this system, he said.
"They identified the thermal barrier composites as areas they could make more efficient. They've consequently produced similar thermal resistance with less weight."
The proposed Project HEROES ensemble is based on the traditional structural fire fighting protective ensemble with special attention paid to the interface areas between garment, hood, gloves and footwear. The interface improvements include a special vapor penetration-resistant zipper used in combination with a material baffle to minimize inward leakage through the front closure.
"We required that an individual has to be able to don the gear without help," Stull said. "The gas-tight zippers used in hazmat suits sometimes takes three people to operate. We found some zippers that were more vapor resistant than gas tight."
Unfortunately, companies that make zippers do not necessarily like small specialized markets as opposed to products with wide distribution, he said.
"Getting them to cooperate has been a challenge," Stull said. "They want a big price. We are working to make that more affordable."
Firefighters might have to add the word "booties" to their vocabulary in reference to fire gear. The liner of the pants have boot-like socks extended into footwear that has been modified by the removal of the normal liner, including hook/loop closures to secure the booty in place.
"The firefighter will never notice," Stull said. "It's not that different from the set up that they are used to."
No-fly pants will be the style for fire fighting if Project HEROES finds wide acceptance. A zipper-less gusset is used in the front pant closure.
"A gusset is a fancy name for an area that folds out," Stull said. "Instead of a zipper or Velcro, you have a wide area that will fold in and maintain a continuous seal. You may have seen something like this on leather boots. Instead of having a tongue they have a gusset in the top of the footwear that pulls out and attaches to the side. It's like an expansion joint."
The hood is directly integrated with the coat, providing a full composite with the CBRN layer rather than the normal knit hood used for structural fire fighting protection. A gasket built into the hood opening seals around the body of the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) facepiece. Suspender studs are replaced by flat loops to minimize gaps between the coat liner and the pants' outer shell. Take up straps on the sides of the coat help secure it against the pants of the wearer.
A collector cap on the exhalation port of the SCBA facepiece channels exhaust air from the wearer into the coat torso through a hose and bulkhead connector on the upper right front chest area of the coat. Spacers on the lining side of the hose penetration direct air through the coat providing upper torso positive pressure.
"That recirculation of air back into the suit makes a big difference," Stull said. "It provides positive pressure to keep the contaminants out. It also provides additional insulation and helps to cool the wearer. As a consequence the firefighter gets turnout gear that some people describe as more comfortable than conventional turnout gear."
Without SCBA, the gear will provide adequate fire protection, but it will not protect as effectively against CBRN. Of course, respiratory protection is a key element of defending against exposure to the chemical and biological terrorism agents. This is one of the reasons that the fire service is switching to CBRN SCBA that have been specially approved by NIOSH.
Most innovative of all, hard rings containing high-temperature-resistant magnets are used in the coat sleeves and glove gauntlets to align and hold the gloves in place for an air tight seal.
"The rings interlock," Stull said. "Each ring has magnets that match up with other magnets in the opposing ring. That locks it so that the only way to remove the glove is by twisting it. Hitting your wrist or hand against a wall won't do it." A thin gasket between the rings creates an air tight seal.
Beyond CBRN protection, Project HEROES' task includes developing enhanced PPE that would foster user acceptability by following the look and function of conventional structural fire fighting gear. All CBRN protection is passive. Nothing more than donning the gear activates it.
With regard to CB.Ready, how it handles interface issues is still under wraps owing to intellectual property issues, Mordecai said.
"The information will be available in a few months," he said. "What I can say is that we are using a deployable approach to those interfaces. We've been going through multiple rounds of MIST tests. We are very close to getting where we would like to be."
Deployable closure systems will allow firefighters to pick the time and place they need CBRN protection, Mordecai said.
"The concept is that he can make a thousand runs where he doesn't need the protection and wouldn't need to be encumbered by it," he said. "If I have to compromise every run I do when I don't need this protection, I'm going to be involved in a system that isn't appropriate for the kind of work that I do every day."
The object is not to have to go back to the truck for CBRN protection, Mordecai said. Actually deploying it remains a departmental operations decision about where it is donned, he said.
In September, Project HEROES passed a key milestone with the successful evaluation of its prototype. Five firefighters from the Fairfax, VA, Fire & Rescue Department, representing a variety of body types, gender and ages, were put through a training academy protocol known as Work Performance Evaluation while wearing the Project HEROES ensemble. Fairfax County is one of only two IAFF approved testing locations.
Each of the five firefighters volunteered for further evaluation and reported better or comparable weight, comfort, flexibility and mobility for the Project HEROES ensemble over their current turnout gear.
The WPE is used by the department to measure an individual's ability to perform essential fire fighting functions within a timed period. The results were "extremely successful," said Rich Duffy, IAFF director of Occupational Health, Safety and Medicine.
The Project HEROES prototype testing included normal fire fighting activities such as ladder carries, forcible entry work, high-rise pack carries, pike pole activities, equipment carries and victim recovery simulations. The results "clearly demonstrated that this initial set of personal protective gear is well on its way to meeting our ambitions goals," Stull said.
All the firefighters completed the WPE protocol without hinderance or restrictions in the alloted time. The field testers reported feeling drier than normal after the test. Integrated boots and pants to prevent inward leakage and eliminate scalding were easy to don, work in and wear.
However, this round of field testing was strictly to judge comfort, flexibility and durability. A fire-ready prototype of the Project HEROES design is slated for sometime between January and March 2006.
"The prototype we used proved that the pieces fit together, work properly and allow the firefighter to complete their tasks," Stull said. "The next step is to make the gear ready for fire environment challenges."
Firefighters wearing Project HEROES designed turnout will be privileged characters around the fire house in one important way. As opposed to off-the-shelf fire gear, protective clothing that shields against CBRN must be tailored to the specific firefighter who wears it.
CB.Ready has done its testing at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, including MIST testing. Unveiled at the IAFF Fire-Rescue International 2004 conference in New Orleans, several prototypes of CB.Ready have been shown at events across the country.
"Those prototypes don't necessarily reflect the suits we are making today, but we have been demonstrating this product virtually every week for a year," Mordecai said
A new round of physiological testing is scheduled for February 1. Beyond that, March is the official end of the project.
"Then we are on our own if it is to become a commercial product," Mordecai said. "The government will not be choosing one over the other. It has only tried to short cut the research and development phase on these products. There will probably others from manufacturers who weren't awarded projects but are working on the same problems."
Lion Apparel, also a major PPE manufacturer, is gearing up to meet the revised NFPA 1971 standard, said Curtis. However, the CBRN option is "not as significant a challenge for us as one might think," he said.
"The NFPA 1971 CBRN option is an escape garment that's based on the 2006 edition of NFPA 1994," Curtis said. "NFPA 1994 defines the rescue garment used against acts of terrorism. We have a certified product for that right now, and we know better than anyone what it takes to pass the tests."
Firefighters may ultimately prefer gear specifically dedicated to CBRN protection rather than rely on their turnouts in such an emergency, he said.
"They may wish to be in pristine and dedicated protection rather than the turnouts they wore sliding down a roof or when they were caught in a flashover," Curtis said. "They use this gear for any number of hard working calls in a three to five year period."
At best, NFPA 1971's CBRN option qualifies as escape gear, Curtis said.
"The NFPA 1971 option is not 'go in and rescue somebody' gear," Curtis said. "We're thinking that the NFPA 1994 rescue product may be more commercially viable and certainly will be more reliable. We will be watching with interest."
Regardless of the approach being touted, it appears certain that firefighters will now have different choices available to them for how they protect themselves against chemical and biological weapons of destruction. The influx of government and private monies into fire service PPE development is definitely going to advance the state-of-the-art for firefighter protection.