Firefighters have always had to deal with the dangers of flame, heat, and smoke, but responding to an emergency in the age of terrorism brings the threat of possible chemical or biological contamination as well. Dr. Roger Barker and his colleagues in NC State’s Textile Protection and Comfort Center (T-PACC) are trying to eliminate those added concerns.

T-PACC has joined forces with materials giant DuPont and turnout gear producer Globe Manufacturing Co. to create a next-generation uniform that offers firefighters increased protection and mobility. The work is so critical to the nation’s anti-terrorism effort that the $830,000 NC State received for its part of the project was the first science and technology grant ever awarded by the Department of Homeland Security.

Turnout gear usually consists of three layers: a heat- and tear-resistant outer shell, a moisture barrier, and an insulating thermal liner. DuPont has developed a selectively permeable membrane for the middle layer that allows firefighters to perspire but keeps germs and chemicals out. Meanwhile, T-PACC is redeveloping the inner layer, working with the Nonwovens Cooperative Research Center in the College of Textiles to build structures of various synthetic fibers that weigh a few pounds less than traditional turnout gear while providing the same thermal protection. “Every ounce we can take out helps. They can move easier, and it reduces the risk of heat exhaustion,” Barker says.

NC State researchers also are examining the overall design of the uniform. Barker has talked with firefighters nationwide to learn their needs. Their responses have helped T-PACC and Globe re-tailor the sleeves, shoulders, and inseam to provide greater range of motion without the coat or pants riding up and exposing firefighters to chemical or biological agents. The initial prototype was unveiled at a national firefighter conference last summer, and Barker plans to use feedback he has since received to produce a second prototype by this summer. “This has to be comfortable to wear but provide enough protection in a chemical or biological emergency for saving yourself and others,” he said.

In addition to turnout gear, T-PACC is studying the performance of the air filters in respirators first responders don in a fire or other emergency. Working on a contract from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, researchers Dr. Warren Jasper and Rob Grimes have found that the filters lose their electrostatic charge—and, consequently, their ability to screen particles—when exposed to liquid or aerosol chemicals, but not chemical vapors. “We haven’t yet gotten to the bottom of why it happens, but we hope our findings will lead to changes in the way the filters are made or used so emergency personnel aren’t put at risk,” Grimes says.

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