For the Record

Chief Leader - October 03, 2006

FDNY Firefighters, officers and union officials have spent the last several weekends voluntarily field-testing a new type of bunker gear that could radically upgrade the level of protection afforded first-responders at structural fires and hazardous material incidents.

Prototypes of the high-tech jackets, boots, gloves and hoods went through several trial runs during limited tests at the FDNY's training facilities at Fort Totten. The suits weigh about the same as existing bunker gear but offer more complete protection from numerous fire hazards.

Giving Firms Feedback

In coming months union officials and firefighters will conduct further tests and provide feedback to the two companies manufacturing different versions of the gear. One of them, Total Fire Group, is planning a larger pilot study among firefighters in three major U.S. cities and hopes to include New York.

Lieut. Jim McGowan, a Lieutenants' representative and member of the Safety Board of the Uniformed Fire Officers' Association, said the union was pleased to be included in the development of the new gear.

The process was still in the development phase, he added, with preliminary findings being reported to the manufacturers.

The suits are part of the "Project Heroes" initiative started in 2002 by the International Association of Fire Fighters. IAFF sought ways to better protect firefighters who might be involved in chemical or biological attacks.

Total Fire Group, which also produces the Morning Pride bunker gear used by the FDNY, won a Department of Homeland Security grant totaling $1 million to fund its research and development.

Lighter Material

A research team from the University of North Carolina, in conjunction with DuPont Chemical, is working on a similar prototype. FDNY firefighters and union officials are testing both at Fort Totten.

Each version features lightweight, breathable material that protects the wearer from burns, extreme temperatures and other known hazards at structural fires. The suits are also CBRN-certified, meaning the wearers can function for limited times at chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear events without compromising their own health.

Along with the standard FDNY self-contained breathing apparatus that's worn with bunker gear, Total Pride Group has developed new technology that allows firefighters to completely seal their faces, protecting them from steam and water as well as airborne toxins.

Much Greater Protection

Additionally, the air that's expelled by firefighters as they breathe is funneled back into the bunker gear via a tube at the waist. This creates an internal cooling system as fresh air comes into the jacket and moves up the firefighter's body, according to Mary Grilliot, executive vice president of Total Fire Group.

"This new gear has what we call passive protection for firefighters - just by wearing it, they've greatly increased their safety," she explained. "Say someone is exposed to a chemical wearing just their underwear - they've got a protection of about one. A firefighter exposed to the same thing wearing regular bunker gear has a protection of eight to 12. But this new gear has protection over 500 - it's almost the equivalent of wearing a Level 2 haz-mat suit, but it's something firefighters can wear to any structural fire."

Aside from the fully sealed face mask, the new gear has magnetic strips in the wrists and gloves that when donned properly can keep out airborne particles and vapors; integrated boots and pants that keep water and steam from pooling inside shoes, and vapor-proof zippers.

Ms. Grilliot, whose husband, son and son-in-law are firefighters, said the company wanted to develop something that afforded a high level of protection no matter what kind of emergency was called in.

Field Test Crucial

"The field-testing is really the most important part of developing this product. You test it in the lab and you think you've got it right, but if it doesn't work for the firefighter, then you haven't done your job," she said.

Already, Total Fire Group has modified some of its initial design based on feedback from the FDNY sample group. The ventilation hose was moved after an FDNY instructor noted that its previous placement got in the way during confined rescues. The design team also added an off-center zipper to the front jacket after it was revealed that it chafed the faces of firefighters when placed directly under the chin.

"The idea is to make something that protects firefighters from everything possible," said Ms. Grilliot. "We always want them to come home safe."