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Protecting the protectors

September 24th, 2018 / By: / Feature

The DHS addresses crucial needs with its First Responder PPE Program.

S&T performs tests on the enhanced PPE technologies that simulate how responders use it in their daily duties. Photo: Department of Homeland Security.

First responders—from firefighters to law enforcement to emergency medical services technicians—need to be ready daily to handle any situation they encounter, and they need the appropriate gear to quickly respond to emergencies. They courageously confront risk, drawing on their experience to make sound decisions in the chaos of a crime or accident scene, or in the heat of a fire. Having access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and reliable response technologies means they can focus on the task at hand, which, in many cases, is saving lives.

The U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) mission is to deliver effective and innovative insight, methods and technological solutions for the critical needs of first responders to keep our communities and nation secure. By engaging and partnering with the emergency preparedness and response communities, S&T achieves a better understanding of their requirements and is able to develop innovative solutions to their most pressing operational challenges.

From a virtual environment that provides realistic training scenarios across multiple first responder disciplines to advanced PPE that reduces responders’ risk of heat exhaustion, bodily injury or cancer, S&T has been instrumental in developing, validating and commercializing technologies that first responders identified as critical capability gaps.

S&T is currently partnering with several academic institutions and industry performers to invest in smart fabrics, as well as protective equipment, to keep first responders safer and help them perform their jobs more effectively. By leveraging emerging innovations to enhance technologies currently on the market, several exciting developments are currently or will soon be available for responders to add to their tool kit. PPE is the first responders’ first line of defense, so they need the best available PPE to protect themselves and the public they are serving.

A power boost for responders

S&T recently issued a solicitation through its Silicon Valley Innovation Program (SVIP) for energy harvesting fabrics that will allow first responders to power up their communications equipment, sensors for environmental and physiological monitors, or other tools without adding to the considerable weight load they already carry with them.

In August 2018, S&T awarded $199,260 to Boston-based Protect the Force Inc. for the Phase I development of photovoltaic (PV) fibers that can be woven into a “power fabric” and integrated with first responder garments to provide a reliable, portable power source. (See “DHS awards $199K for development of energy harvesting fabric” on this site.) PV materials produce electricity through exposure to light, then energy harvesting fabrics produce and store electricity within a fabric weave to power portable devices. The power fabric can be used to make first responder gear or placed as panels on protective clothing.

S&T is also working to arm responders with more durable PPE, developing enhanced gloves for hoist rescue workers whose stability is paramount as they work to rescue people who are injured and stranded in hard-to-access areas. Currently available rescue hoist gloves have severe limitations: they may only last for one or two rescues, as friction from the steel rescue cable causes the gloves to quickly degrade, and the glove material can become entangled in the steel rescue cable, causing it to prematurely fail. This is extremely dangerous, as well as costly for agencies that have to continuously procure replacements.

“We go through rescue gloves quickly and talking to our counterparts in the U.S. Coast Guard, they face the same issue,” says Steve Vandewalle from San Diego Fire and Rescue. “Private industry has been slow to address this—not because it isn’t greatly needed, but because of the limited market. Having S&T drive the research and development of a solution to this capability gap will open the door to bringing a suitable product to responders.”

Existing gloves also lack comfort and flexibility, and do not provide enough dexterity for first responders to perform a variety of required tasks. S&T awarded funding in April 2018 to Higher Dimension Materials Inc. (HDM) to develop enhanced rescue hoist gloves. HDM is testing materials and gloves currently on the market to determine wear rates and wear patterns of these designs and glove materials.

They are also testing new materials to characterize their wear rates and identify the materials that will provide the increased levels of durability required by responders in an enhanced glove design that is more comfortable, flexible and durable, while providing greater dexterity for the responder wearing them. Prototypes will be laboratory- and field-tested with state and local first responders and U.S. Coast Guard personnel, with the goal of having a commercial product available on the market in late spring 2019.

Feedback and testing is critical

S&T continues to leverage fabrics and equipment to help first responders perform their day-to-day tasks more quickly and efficiently. Several of the technologies currently in development will soon be transitioned to commercial use. Before those transitions can happen, S&T will conduct real-world testing to ensure that the technologies meet first responder operational requirements.

S&T is currently conducting  wear-testing with two multi-threat protective base ensembles that can be worn as normal duty uniforms. S&T collaborated with both North Carolina State University’s (NC State) Textile Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC) and Luna Innovations, Inc. to develop the garments—shirts and pants—that provide protection against multiple threats while maintaining comfort for prolonged daily wear. These garments provide increased levels of protection against specific threats compared to existing responder uniforms.

The first, Advanced Multi-threat Base Ensemble for Responders (AMBER) was designed by TPACC in partnership with Protect the Force. The team identified and selected commercially available materials that meet various protective requirements.

AMBER design goals included:

  • Comfort and durability for daily wear
  • Limited protection against heat and flame
  • Splash resistance
  • Rip/tear protection
  • Modular design for integration with primary protective clothing against specific hazards.

In addition, the design team aims to address unique design requirements of female responders.

The second, designed by Luna Innovations, is meant to be worn daily and protects against multiple hazards for a limited period of time. The multilayer textile system consists of:

  • Fluid resistant textile treatment to repel water, chemicals and bodily fluids
  • Antimicrobial textile treatment to protect against a range of bacteria and pathogens
  • Flame resistant textile layer
  • Chemical protective membrane
  • Rip/tear protection

These base ensemble uniforms are currently being wear-tested by first responders in the United States, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Additional technologies this year
Full view of the enhanced structural turnout ensemble. Photo: Department of Homeland Security.

Two additional responder technologies will undergo operational field assessments in late 2018. The first is Burn Saver, a small, lightweight, battery-powered thermal sensor that alerts firefighters when they are in thermal conditions that can cause damage to their PPE, specifically the face shields of their Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA). Burn Saver monitors the thermal environment in real-time and warns the responders when it is time to leave the scene. The capability for firefighters to continuously detect, monitor and analyze thermal environmental threats in real time, and quickly respond, is essential to S&T’s efforts to decrease the number of PPE failures and improve firefighter safety.

Developed with TDA Research Inc. (TDA) through a Small Business Innovative Research award, Burn Saver will respond to both radiant (i.e., infrared) and convective heat sources, and will soon be submitted for inclusion as a component of the turnout gear ensemble to meet the National Fire Protection Association 1984 standard. The technology is scheduled to be operationally field tested with first responder stakeholders in October 2018 at the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md.

The second technology, which will also be operationally field-tested at the National Fire Academy in October, is a respirator system specifically for firefighter use during overhaul operations. After a structure fire has been suppressed, firefighters carry out salvage and check for and extinguish any smoldering hot spots, while at the same time trying to minimize damage to the structure and its contents.

Early in the overhaul operations, firefighters wear their SCBA to protect themselves from high carbon monoxide (CO) levels. Later on, it is common practice to remove the SCBA when the CO concentration is less than 35 parts per million and is deemed safe. The responders may then don a particulate filter, which does not provide protection against toxic chemical vapors, or they may choose to not wear any protection to complete the overhaul procedures.

S&T worked with TDA and Avon Protection Systems to develop the stackable, modular filter system composed of a replaceable filter module capable of removing coarse particulates that can be present during overhaul operations; and a filter canister that incorporates HEPA filter protection against fine particulates and a charcoal filter module optimized for removing toxic chemical vapors present in the fire overhaul environment.

Currently available

To ensure first responders are on the cutting edge of technology as they respond to emergencies, S&T looks at a variety of sources—including the commercial marketplace, responder communities and international partners—for low-to high-tech solutions. Sometimes that means starting from scratch; other times it means taking available technologies and enhancing them specifically to meet responders’ operational, training or even health-related needs.

One of the rising concerns in the fire service is the growing rate of cancer diagnoses. Chronic exposure to toxic combustion products and particulate matter found in the fireground environment are believed to contribute significantly to higher cancer occurrences in firefighters. When used during fire suppression and overhaul stages, the SCBA protects the highly-susceptible respiratory tract from toxic combustion particulates in smoke and soot. However, firefighters are still exposed to hazardous vapors and particulates when smoke penetrates interfaces in their turnout gear and deposits on (and absorb through) their skin.

The increased rate of cancer among firefighters is alarming, so when it was brought to our attention at S&T, we funded a project to address this important issue. S&T collaborated with TPACC and LION First Responder PPE Inc. to develop a structural turnout ensemble with enhanced protection from smoke and soot infiltration, which could contain carcinogenic compounds.

Laboratory tests, including tests to determine vapor infiltration and fluorescent particle tests, were critical to demonstrating that the new turnout ensemble prevents smoke and particulates from reaching the firefighter’s skin, protecting them from hazardous vapors and materials. By reducing the potential for chronic dermal exposures to toxic fireground compounds, over time this ensemble and the technologies developed during this research will help to improve the well-being and safety of firefighters.

TPACC conducted development testing with local firefighters, incorporating changes to the structural turnout ensemble based on their direct feedback. The new structural turnout ensemble, now named REDZONETM Contaminant Control, is available for agencies to purchase via LION.

When responding to structural fires, firefighters wear protective structure gloves to shield their hands from burns and other injuries. Because structure gloves can be bulky and limit dexterity, firefighters often need to remove the gloves to complete routine tasks, such as handling operating tools or using communications equipment. Without these gloves, firefighters’ hands are at a higher risk of injury.

S&T partnered with NanoSonic Inc. and Shelby Specialty Gloves to construct an improved structure glove that provides the full range of protection firefighters need. This next-generation glove, developed with a durable Kevlar®-based material called HybridSil®, provides firefighters with enhanced dexterity, water repellency and fire resistance. HybridSil® can withstand punctures and lacerations that other structure gloves may not.

The project underwent multiple stages of research and testing to ensure the material’s durability in operational field conditions. To make certain the gloves truly met the needs of firefighters, S&T sent prototypes to be tested by fire departments across the nation. Responders used the gloves in a series of rigorous exercises designed to replicate real life operational scenarios.

The final glove prototypes were evaluated against five categories:

  1. Ease of donning and doffing
  2. Proper fit
  3. Puncture resistance
  4. Dexterity
  5. Thermal protection and heat dissipation.

“Technology isn’t necessarily something with electronics and batteries. A well-recognized delay in entering a burning structure is when the first-in firefighter will feel the door with an ungloved hand as trained to do; then, it will take 20-30 seconds to put a wet hand back in a dry glove,” Vandewalle explained. “We needed a glove that was easily donned, easily doffed, provided better tactility and dexterity, with better thermal protection. DHS S&T First Responder Resource Group worked closely with Shelby Gloves to develop something that exceeded their expectations.” The finished product is now available for purchase from Shelby Glove under the name Flex-Tuff HS.

Join in the effort

In seeking to protect America against terrorism and all other hazards, S&T will continue toprovide first responder solutions for high-priority capability gaps through rapid prototyping, technology assistance and information sharing to save lives and maximize preparedness. The first responder community is in need of solutions at various price points and capabilities. S&T is always looking to collaborate with industry to meet these needs.


William “Bill” Deso is program manager, Department of Homeland Security, Science & Technology Directorate for several firefighter Personal Protection Equipment projects for DHS S&T, and has successfully transitioned several of its projects to the commercial marketplace.  He is a member of the Science and Technology Sub-Committee of the Inter-Agency Board (IAB) and a participant in the Washington DC area Council of Governments HazMat Sub-Committee.

For more information on current and future SVIP solicitations contact To provide ideas on technology solutions, visit or contact for more information about S&T’s research and development efforts, as well as for technologies currently available for the first response community.