Innovations in fire-retardant fibers and fabric products are keeping people and structures safer.
By Julie Young
Fire-retardant fabrics protect people in a diverse range of occupations, including military personnel, racecar drivers, industrial workers, special effects technicians and, of course, firefighters. And new innovations in fire-retardant fiber and fabric products are raising protection of life and limb—not to mention structures and other property—to new levels, while keeping users more comfortable and giving them a greater range of fit and mobility. New clothing options are being designed for a wide range of body types, including products designed specifically for women. And companies that develop these products are going directly to the users to find out what new innovations and applications are needed.
CarbonX passes the test
Salt Lake City, Utah-based Chapman Innovations develops and produces heat and fire resistant clothing based on its CarbonX® fabric, a patented blend of high-performance fibers that do not burn, char, shrink or significantly decompose when exposed to intense flame, molten metal, arc flash or high heat. Chief Operating Officer Bob Goulet says that the company has recently focused on structural applications like building covering materials and has used insulation materials and reinforced wovens in composite solutions.
Goulet explains that the various fire-resistant fibers and materials on the market respond to flame, molten metal, arc flash and high heat differently. Most of the fire-retardant fibers decompose to a form a hard plastic or char, both of which render the material unsuitable for subsequent use, he says.
“For instance, meta-aramid fibers (Nomex® and Conex®) decompose and form a hard plastic immediately after being exposed to direct flame,” he says. “This hard material is not flexible and typically cracks open. In a dynamic situation where a user needs to move, this can lead to serious burns.”
In contrast, CarbonX fabrics are based on partially carbonized materials that continue to carbonize when exposed to direct flame. The fibers remain flexible and intact, thus continuing to provide protection, he says.
CarbonX was put to the test in February when the Discovery Channel’s Smash Lab television show combined CarbonX fabric with other products in an attempt to fireproof a house. Goulet explains that in a forest fire, structures in the path of the fire must be “self-sustaining” because the focus of firefighting efforts is to contain the forest fire, not put out a house fire. The results of the Smash Lab experiment were very promising and indicate that the use of CarbonX in structure protection is a very feasible concept, he says.
“We are working on some new concepts in this area including shelters for wild-land firefighters,” he says.
Extreme garments for extreme temps
Workers who are exposed to intense heat may have the outerwear gear to protect them, but they are still subjected to potential problems if their next-to-skin garments don’t perform as well. DRIFIRE LLC, based in Columbus, Ga., has developed moisture-wicking garments such as t-shirts, boxers and long pants in three weight classes to assist those in the military, firefighting, utility and industrial fields.
“Our target has been primarily next-to-skin garments for the military,” says Stephanie Youker, DRIFIRE director of marketing. “We have developed a fabric combination of modacrylic and Tencel® which allows those who are in high-activity environments protection from flames while keeping them cool and dry in extreme temperatures.”
Youker explains that those who work around fires or in the harsh Middle East desert are subject to steam burns from intense heat when they wear a basic cotton t-shirt under their protective gear. In contrast, the DRIFIRE silk-weight t-shirt draws moisture away from the individual’s skin and dries automatically. The material also contains anti-bacterial and anti-odor components. The garments are unique in that many other high-performance garments are only treated with the moisture-wicking barrier, while DRIFIRE offers materials that have the protective applications built into them, she says.
Youker says that a shortage of Nomex opens up the market for new innovations in fire-retardant gear that not only protect in extreme heat, but also insulate in extreme cold.
“We have learned that many soldiers have duty for 24 hours at a time and while the desert sun may be blistering, at night the temperatures fall and many get hypothermia from the chills caused by a sweat-soaked t-shirt,” she says.
DRIFIRE is also developing some woven garments such as long shirts and a flight suit, Youker says. “We really just listen to what the customers want and need.”
Protection for all body types
Globe Manufacturing Co., Pittsfield, N.H., offers a new application in the G-XCEL thermal suit: built with a new contemporary chassis, the G-XCEL features extended back length in the jacket and extra length in the knee and seat for increased mobility, plus a long list of optional features that allow companies to configure the G-XCEL to their exact specifications.
Globe marketing services manager Stephanie McQuade says the company’s design team works with fire departments and EMS personnel to find out what features they need in protective gear. The G-XCEL is designed with a free-hanging patented throat tab, ergonomically curved sleeves, cargo/hand-warmer pockets with an extra layer of Kevlar® and telescoping cuffs. The AXTION liner in both the jacket and the pant has darts in both the thermal and moisture barriers corresponding to the added length in the shell. The gear is available in a full range of patterns designed for all body types.
“While the G-XCEL was strictly designed for firefighting, you could wear it in almost any emergency situation,” says McQuade. “People do not always know what they are getting themselves into and you have to protect yourself whether you are attending a fire or putting one out. We have a design team that looks to the firefighters for input as to what they like and don’t like about design features. We feel that working with them only helps us make our products better over time.”
Customers endorse flame-retardant fabric products
There may be no greater PR than a customer endorsement, and perhaps no greater endorsement than one that says, “This product saves lives.”
“We have a lot of soldiers who buy directly from us and we have T-shirt drives in which the public can send some of our T-shirts overseas to those serving in Iraq or other places,” says DRIFIRE’s Youker. “We have a great customer base, and several fire departments endorse our products.”
James Beauchamp, Smash Lab’s special effects coordinator, sounds his own support for CarbonX. In a lucky twist of fate, Beauchamp happened to be wearing a CarbonX undershirt shortly after filming the fireproof house episode, and as he was setting up another experiment, a device malfunctioned. A rocket was set off prematurely, sending him to the emergency room.
“The emergency room doctor couldn’t figure out why I didn’t have burns on my back, arms and stomach,” says Beauchamp. “It was because I was wearing a CarbonX undershirt and it protected me that day. After that experience I wear a full CarbonX suit to work every day.”