New gear for W. Va. firefighters takes the heat

By Karen Snyder
Charleston Daily Mail
Copyright 2007 Charleston Newspapers

CHARLESTON, W. Va. — Charleston firefighters' new uniforms are made from the same material used in bullet-proof vests for police. But these suits are designed to

protect users from 300- to 500-degree temperatures in structure fires.

Charleston firefighters are updating their wardrobe with $30,000 worth of new gear that could prove crucial in the worst situations.

The Charleston Fire Department is waiting on a shipment of high-tech uniforms made of the same material police officers use to protect themselves from bullets.

Chief of Operations Steve McClure, 47, said the coats and pants will satisfy the new National Fire Protection Association's standards, which change about every five years.

"Our specification calls for our clothing to actually exceed the minimum standards," McClure said.

Much like the gear the department has now, the new coats and pants will be made of three protective layers of material - an outer shell, a vapor barrier and a thermal liner.

"All of those layers have to be used together to achieve protection," McClure said.

The outer shell is composed of Nomex and Kevlar, the same material used in bulletproof vests.

The next layer, the vapor barrier, is made of Gore-tex and allows body heat and vapor to pass from the firefighters to the environment while still not allowing other fluids in.

McClure said this layer is especially important when meeting the blood-born pathogen standard, required for firefighters to provide medical services. The vapor barrier keeps body fluids from entering the firefighters' gear while keeping them comfortable.

"It allows us to breathe," McClure said. "It lets us get rid of some of our body heat while not letting moisture in."

The third layer is the thermal liner made of Nomex, which protects firefighters from extreme heat. McClure said they often battle temperatures ranging from 300 to 500 degrees during a typical structure fire.

While no material is completely fireproof, Nomex is one of the best protective materials available. Charleston Fire Department's gear ranks higher than the national standard on the Thermal Protection Index, McClure said.

"We could make our bunker gear withstand extreme temperatures, but that makes it so thick you can't move," he said. "Our TPI rating is about 42, which is pretty good. The national standard is around 35."

McClure said protective gear has evolved a lot over the years.

"It's amazing the differences in the material, the weight and the technology and research that goes into this project," he said.

He described a rubber outer shell that was the standard uniform years ago. While it was waterproof, it didn't allow body heat to escape and provided no thermal protection.

"They've now come to withstand heat and wear and tear," McClure said.

McClure added that one of the newest developments in protective gear came following the death of a firefighter in Phoenix several years ago.

"He was trapped in a collapsed building," McClure said. "The firefighters couldn't drag him out with the equipment they had."

In response, manufacturers developed the idea for the drag rescue device, commonly referred to as the DRD by firefighters.

The DRD is a piece of material that harnesses a firefighter's chest and runs out an opening in the back of the outer coat. By pulling up on that looped flap of material, another firefighter can drag his coworker to safety.

The department's new gear, expected to arrive in early August, will feature a reflective cover over the DRD, making it easier to spot in rescue situations.

McClure stressed the importance of both the protective aspects of the gear and its comfort. Firemen's uniforms are extremely heavy, he said.

Firefighter Shawne Monk, 29, weighs around 245 pounds without his gear. After putting on his coat, pants, boots, gloves, helmet and a breathing apparatus, Monk weighs a staggering 317 pounds.

"It adds a lot of weight to you, and we try to make it as breathable as possible," McClure said. "The more comfortable we can make the guys, the better they'll be able to perform their job."

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