New versions of fire shelters to be tested this year

Five years ago after 19 firefighters were killed while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona on June 30, 2013 the U.S. Forest Service said they were going to move up the planned revision of the fire shelters that failed to be effective when used by the Granite Mountain Hotshots that day. The redesign has now progressed to the point where it will be tested by 60 firefighters this year.

Below is information released by the National Interagency Fire Center about the project.


This summer, a total of 60 wildland firefighters will carry one of four new fire shelter prototypes for “wear testing” as part of the ongoing “Fire Shelter Project Review” that was initiated in 2014 to identify possible improvements to the fire shelter system.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) Fire Shelter Subcommittee, which is comprised of federal, state, and local wildland firefighters, wildfire safety specialists, fire management officers, and other fire shelter users, selected the four new fire shelter prototypes for wear testing. The USDA Forest Service National Technology and Development Program, which administers the Fire Shelter Project Review, will issue a total of 60 prototypes of four different new fire shelter designs that have shown improved performance in lab tests to wildland firefighters to evaluate durability. The wildfire environment is very rugged and fire shelters must be carried by wildland firefighters for years and still be functional when needed.

Two of the new fire shelter prototypes are designed for ground firefighters and 20 of each of these prototypes will be issued to Interagency Hotshot Crew members for wear testing. The other two new fire shelter prototypes, which have been determined to be too bulky for ground firefighters, will be tested by equipment operators. Ten of each of the bulkier prototypes will be issued. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the USDA Forest Service have a cooperative work agreement for this project. Two of the prototype fire shelters are NASA designs.

“The biggest job that a fire shelter has to do is be carried around by a wildland firefighter all day, every day, all season long,” said Tony Petrilli, Fire Shelter Review Leader with the USDA Forest Service National Technology and Development Program. “That doesn’t lend itself to the use of a lot of materials that can withstand high temperatures because of weight, bulk, durability and toxicity.”

The current fire shelter, which has been in use nationwide by all wildland firefighters since 2010, offers 54 seconds of survivability in lab tests. The current and previous versions of fire shelters have saved the lives of hundreds of wildland firefighters since the 1960s. The four new fire shelter prototypes that will be wear tested this summer offer increased protection, but two of the four are also bulkier and heavier. The backpacks that wildland firefighters carry weigh an average of 45 pounds. Adding weight and bulk to the fire shelter increases daily physiological stress on wildland firefighters. A 2014 survey of over 3,800 wildland firefighters indicated that they prefer a lighter fire shelter that matches the performance of the current fire shelter over a more protective fire shelter with additional weight and bulk.

Over the last four years, the USDA Forest Service National Technology and Development Program evaluated and tested hundreds of potential fire shelter materials and designs submitted by 23 different organizations from all over the world. The materials and designs were evaluated on weight, bulk, durability and toxicity, which are critical to determine suitability for use in fire shelters. Suitable materials were tested in a small-scale flame test to determine material strength, durability, flammability, and thermal performance. Materials that showed promise in the small-scale test were then constructed into fire shelters and tested in a full-scale, direct flame test to measure the performance of the overall fire shelter design.

After completion of the wear tests, the USDA Forest Service National Technology and Development Program will evaluate the results and conduct a final round of full-scale direct flame testing to ensure the four new fire shelter prototypes are still able to perform after being carried by ground firefighters and equipment operators over the summer. The final results will be presented to the NWCG Fire Shelter Subcommittee which will make a recommendation on whether to adopt one or more of the new fire shelter prototypes or to continue to use the existing fire shelter.

Wildland firefighters are trained to consider fire shelters as a last resort and to avoid situations that can lead to entrapment. As with the current fire shelter, it is likely that none of the four new fire shelter prototypes can ensure survival in all wildfire conditions. Nationwide, in 2017, wildland firefighters deployed fire shelters on two separate incidents when they were caught in fire entrapment situations, all three wildland firefighters survived.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

9 thoughts on “New versions of fire shelters to be tested this year”

  1. Have they tried using ground or powdered ceramic as an outer layer or something you could carry around folded but when deployed it would become rigid from the heat somewhat to keep the shelter off the back of the firefighter .

  2. The Yarnell Hill Fire fatalities were indeed a tragedy.

    The only constructed product that would improve “fire shelters that failed to be effective when used by the Granite Mountain Hotshots” on June 30, 2013 would be literal shipping containers constructed of “Black Box” material that contain the aviation voice and data recorders on aircraft. There will never be a fire shelter designed and produced that would be light enough to satisfy the general wildland firefighter, management, and the general public’s expectations (post ‘Only The Brave’) for a wildland firefighter to comfortably and safely carry on the firelines. Never.

    The solution is entrapment avoidance by knowing and following the Ten Standard Fire Orders and LCES and recognizing and mitigating the Watch Out Situations.

    The required NWCG fire shelter training video narration states that fire shelters are responsible for saving hundreds of lives and preventing burn injuries. The empirical evidence is that following the basic WF Rules are responsible for saving tens of thousands of WFs lives every single fire season.

    Choose entrapment avoidance over fire shelter deployment.

  3. Firefighters have been told since the 10 Orders were created in the 1950s to follow them so they can avoid entrapment. Continuing to use the same management strategy, telling them to follow the orders and the watch outs, but expecting a different result this time, is not a realistic plan. The fact that we can take to the bank is, firefighters will still be entrapped every now and then. So we should give them the best fire shelter that they can reasonably carry that won’t interfere with their assignment. Lets see what NASA and the FS scientists came up with before declaring that nothing will work.

    1. New Salt,

      You are correct that firefighters have been told since the 10 Orders were created in the 1950s to follow them so they can avoid entrapment. Continuing to use the same management strategy, telling them to follow the orders and the watch outs, but expecting a different result this time, is actually a very realistic plan because they work EVERY time you follow them.

      Those of us that faithfully utilized the basic WF Rules expected and received the same result each time. Entrapment avoidance.

      You are correct that we can take to the bank is that firefighters will still be entrapped every now and then, however, it will almost certainly be when they do NOT follow the 10 Fire Orders and recognize, heed, and mitigate the Watch Outs.

      Utilize Entrapment Avoidance

      1. “Utilize Entrapment Avoidance”. Why has no one ever thought of this before?

        Oh wait! EVERY firefighter during the last half century or longer has known this.

        1. Then WHY are there still entrapments if EVERY firefighter during the last half century or longer has known this? Those that regularly follow the Basic WF Rules disengage and change tactics and remain safe, while those that do not follow the Basic WF Rules are caught off guard and likely entrapped.

          The Standard Firefighting Orders, organized deliberately and sequentially, are to be carried out analytically in all fire situations. The 18 Watch Out Situations, i.e. guidelines, are faced on all fires, more to warn of impending dangers.

          “If firefighters follow the Standard Firefighting Orders and are alerted to the 18 Watch Out Situations, much of the risk of firefighting can be reduced”

          U.S.D.A. Forest Service, Fire and Aviation Management: Risk Management (2017)

  4. Yes, a improvement in fire shelters and other technology will hopefully decrease injuries and death. But involved in a dangerous profession we still have to rely on common sense and complete, detailed knowledge of our profession. In my own very informal review of both fatal and non-fatal burovers it seems like people were often put in a bad positions by their own poor decisions or those of others. A series of small uncorrected mistakes leads to a large unescapable one. In both cases where I came close to being burned over early in my career a fire shelter deployment would have ensured my death instead of minor burns and loss of equipment, (in the first one the agency did not have them). In review of the 10/18 after them I, not others had violated or ignored several both times. Later on as a agency safety officer investigating accidents/incidents I found that poor decision making skills was a leading cause of them. Be safe out there and if you are uncomfortable about a situation let someone know.

  5. New Salt posted: “… firefighters will still be entrapped every now and then.” That is absolutely correct for those firefighters that do NOT follow the basic WF Rules.

    Name me one fire … just one, where the WFs followed the basic WF Rules and were entrapped. Keep looking. There are NONE!

    B.Morgan posted: “Later on as a agency safety officer investigating accidents/incidents I found that poor decision making skills was a leading cause of them.”

    Totally agree. It is Human Factors that either keeps you out of trouble or gets you into trouble every single time, especially when habitually making Bad Decisions With Good Outcomes or following the the Normalization of Deviance ways of fighting fire.

    “… and if you are uncomfortable about a situation let someone know” and get the heck out of there.

  6. When are we going to turn our worst enemy into our best friend .burn out is the best thing to protect fire fighters .each ff should have a small fusee to use , it should be taught just like shelter deployment.

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