Deploy a Fire Shelter?

What’s in your toolbox for that last-ditch line of protection?

CarolinaFireJournal - Robert Dunivin
Robert Dunivin
05/06/2014 -

On July 6, 1994, 14 firefighters died in a burn-over on the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain. Jim Roth received the news that every firefighter family member fears. His brother was one of the 14 killed. As Jim learned of the events of that fire and the actions of the crew, he had many questions. Why were they in the spot where they were found? What caused the fire to run? One of the questions that Jim focused on was what the crew had for its last-ditch line of protection — The Fire Shelter.

As firefighters, we are all taught to live by LCES, 10 Standard Fire Orders, and 18 WATCH OUTS to keep us all out of trouble. We are also handed a fire shelter and told things like, “this is your last form of protection in a burn-over; it’s to be used when all else fails; or if you deploy it there is going to be a lot of paperwork.” Jim found that due to this mentality firefighters tend to wait to the last minute and sometimes too late to deploy fire shelters.

Jim had an extensive background in aerospace engineering. He was concerned that the fire shelter that his brother had as his last-ditch line of protection wasn’t made of the best possible material out there. Jim took on this challenge head-on. He met with many firefighters around the country to find out more about wildland firefighter safety procedures and equipment.

“Imagine what you could do with a fire shelter that was bullet proof; survivable in any fuel type,” Jim once told me. I met Jim some years ago at SAFER (Southern Area Fire Equipment Research organization) when he made a presentation to the group on the development of a new shelter. Because of these presentations, the word was out on new material technologies for fire shelters in the late 1990s. Along the way, Jim worked with the U.S. Forest Service on fire shelters. The Forest Service did produce a better shelter based on many of Jim’s recommendations. While Jim felt that what the Forest Service produced was better than the previous version, there was still room for improvement. His work continues today in getting a fire shelter more survivable and lighter weight.

After the Calabasas Fire burn-over in southern California in 1997, it was felt that firefighters needed other options to protect themselves on engines. Jim was asked by fire agencies to look at the Glendale and Los Angeles City Fire Department incident in Malibu. He used the tragedy to development fire barrier curtains and enclosures for engines.

There are several challenges to the apparatus fire curtain system development. The first challenge is to define the fire intensity levels and design parameters of the fire curtain material. The second challenge is to develop a manufacturing system that can be customized to all types and models of fire apparatus that is deployed rapidly and easily. Lastly, once again, is to change the thought process of the firefighter.

Firefighters for many years were taught not to use the apparatus for safety. Safety zones and fire shelters were the only way to protect us. We were also given the option of sheltering in a structure. Multiple tests showed that with the fire barrier curtains the apparatus provided firefighter protection from the initial onset of a burn-over, which is the most dangerous part of a fire. The weak spots were the open jump seats areas and cab windows failing under the heat. Fire engines these days are fully enclosed, but windows continue to be the weak spots. The fire curtain provides protection in these areas and allows a safe area to wait out the passing flame front of a wildfire. This is the same thought as sheltering in a structure.

The intent of the fire curtain is not to replace the fire shelter or sheltering in place in a structure. Its purpose is to give an additional safety option to go when things go bad fast.

We follow our training and plan never to put ourselves in a bad situation. Weather, topography and fuels are key factors during a wildland fire. Firefighters are given tools to minimize these effects and to protect ourselves. Using fire curtains to provide a safe cab is just one more tool in the box. It’s now up to the firefighters to train, and practice and plan how and when to use this tool.

For training, Jim recommends a few things in preparation:

  • Locating the apparatus away from mid-slope roads or in saddles
  • Getting flammable materials out of the cab
  • Having SCBA’s and Structural PPE in the cab with you

Practice deploying the fire curtains in 30 seconds or less, prepare for the fire onset and maintain situational awareness during the event. The engine may catch fire, but the cab’s integrity will remain intact. Prepare to “abandon ship” and exit into the burn allowing enough time for the fire to pass and permitting the crew to safely exit the apparatus.

Jim Roth has always felt that even saving just one life would make it all worthwhile. As of this date, some 18 firefighters and civilians have used the fire curtains safely. He is founder of Storm King Mountain Technologies, a company that continues to develop products to protect firefighters.Robert Dunivin has 20 years of experience in the fire service, the last seven with the Los Angeles Fire Department. He has held the positions of firefighter and engineer with two separate departments. Dunivin was the co-chair of CSFA’s Health and Wellness Committee.
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