Center Gives Firefighters a Hand With Protection

If not for their charred appearance, the model hands in Dr. Roger Barker’s lab could easily be advertising skin cream or jewelry. Instead, Barker uses the state-of-the-art PyroHands Fire Test System to ensure that firefighters’ gloves provide adequate protection. The device is the latest addition to the array of equipment in the Textile Protection and Comfort Center (T-PACC) to test how well turnout gear and accessories insulate firefighters and first responders from harm. “If you’re responding to a fire or chemical emergency, you can’t afford to have any skin area left exposed,” Barker says. “You need to be protected from the tips of your toes to the top of your head.”

“As we’re developing new textiles, we’re advancing testing on fabrics.”

A professor of textile engineering, Barker has been studying the thermal protection characteristics of fibers and textiles for years. He launched T-PACC many years ago with PyroMan—a sensor-laden mannequin blasted from different angles by gas torches—to test firefighter uniforms. His research team has since expanded the center’s capabilities to include PyroHands, a PyroHead to test helmets and headgear, and a simulated chemical exposure chamber.

With PyroHands, Barker’s researchers no longer need to cut a swatch from a glove and lay it flat for testing. They can now see how the entire glove performs while engulfed by flames. His team studied the physiology of the human hand and learned how variations in skin thickness affect the burn-injury model. Data obtained in PyroHands tests are used to engineer new protective materials—thinner, more heat-resistant fibers in a nonwoven fabric that provides greater dexterity without sacrificing protection. Barker previously used the same bulk-reducing technology in the liner of a firefighter’s turnout coat. “If you maintain a certain level of protection while increasing functionality,” he says, “you’re actually improving overall safety.”

“If you’re responding to a fire or chemical emergency, you can’t afford to have any area left exposed.”

T-PACC’s testing equipment also allows Barker’s team to obtain data that can be used to establish new safety benchmarks. For example, firefighters complained that
they would sometimes get burned when the fabric of
their uniforms pressed against their bodies as they moved. NC State researchers determined that thermal energy that had built up in the uniforms was being released suddenly, and they developed a test to measure a fabric’s heat discharge. Because of the findings, the National Fire Protection Association is considering a new performance requirement for firefighter suits that addresses stored thermal energy. “As we’re developing new textiles, we’re advancing testing on fabrics,” Barker says. “T-PACC’s unique facilities allow us to truly meet the needs of these people who put their lives at risk to protect us.”


The PyroHands Fire Test System is the latest addition to Dr. Roger Barkerís center on Centennial Campus that designs and tests protective gear for firefighters and first responders.

Jessica Watkins, left, a graduate textile engineering student, slips a firefighterís glove over the PyroHands system to determine how well it insulates the hand from the heat of a fire.