NC State lab uses ‘fire chamber’ to test protection for firefighters

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Researchers at N.C. State are working to find better ways to protect firefighters fighting wildfires.

They received a grant from FEMA after a group of firefighters was killed three years ago.

In 2013, 19 wildland firefighters died after becoming trapped by flames in Arizona. Some of those who died had deployed fire shelters.

“A fire shelter is a last line of defense for a wildland firefighter,” explained N.C. State textile engineer Roger Barker. “That’s why the focus of our research is on developing materials that are more heat resistant and they have to be resistant to very intense flames, he added.

When there is no way to escape an oncoming fire, firefighters can place the shelter over their bodies to offer them some protection as the fire burns over them.

Shelters are tested inside a fire chamber on campus. Researchers say it’s the only one of its kind.

“It gives you a good environment that’s going to simulate what a firefighter’s going to see in real life,” said research associate John Morton-Aslanis.

Researchers are looking for just the right combination and arrangement of materials to protect firefighters from a wildfire’s intense flames, heat, and wind.

“The structure of that fabric is very complicated. It’s many layers made up of heat-resistant fibers but also other things that go into it that give it that heat blocking ability,” said Barker.

He also described some characteristics of the ideal fire shelter. “It would be able to insulate. It would be able to maintain the air temperature within the shelter as low as possible for as long as possible.”

They also have to make the shelters light enough that firefighters can carry them at all times. Although fire shelters will always be a last resort, researchers say their goal is to give firefighters in a desperate situation, every possible chance to survive.

Once the shelters are tested in the lab, researchers plan to test them in the field in controlled burn situations. That’s expected to happen sometime next year.

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