Five year effort to improve fire shelter fails

fire shelter
The present version of the fire shelter currently used by firefighters was tested to compare with newer prototypes. Left to right: Bobby Williams, Nick Mink/BLM, Blake Stewart/USFWS, and Joe Roise. Photo by Great Plains Fire Management Zone.

After five years of research an attempt to provide wildland firefighters with a more effective fire shelter has failed. Fire shelters are small foldable pup tent-like fire resistant devices that a wildland firefighter can unfold and climb into if there is no option for escaping from an approaching inferno. Many firefighters have used the devices successfully, but others have been killed inside them.

The catalyst for beginning the effort to improve the shelter had its origin from the Yarnell Hill Fire where 19 firefighters were entrapped and killed on June 30, 2013 in Arizona. They all deployed shelters, but none of them survived, however it is not certain if they were all completely inside the devices when they were overrun by the fire. The temperatures and duration of the heat experienced during that incident exceeded the capabilities of the design, which is still in use today.

During the last five years, the US Forest Service conducted an exhaustive search of materials and designs, working with 23 different entities, including NASA, that produced hundreds of different materials and combinations. Fire shelter materials and designs were evaluated on weight, bulk, durability and toxicity that are critical for determining 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 hundreds of full-scale tests, four prototype designs were selected for wear testing by 60 firefighters during the 2018 fire season.

One prototype was lighter, smaller and performed better than the current shelter, but did not satisfactorily endure production rigors and was eliminated from consideration. One prototype style was tested by line-going firefighters, while two large shelters were carried by equipment operators only.

The prototype designed for line-going firefighters showed a 37-second direct-flame test performance improvement; however, it is nearly one pound heavier and has 1.7 times more volume than the current shelter. The prototype shelter envisioned for equipment operators is more than four times the volume and nearly 1½ pounds heavier.

The researchers were unable to find an alternative that offered less weight/less bulk with similar protection or similar weight and bulk with more protection. Furthermore, past shelter deployments show that the vast majority of firefighters are able to deploy their shelter in a location that is predominantly exposed to only radiant heat. The current shelter performs very well in radiant heat exposure.

The committee that made the decision to recommend continuing to use the existing shelter weighed many facets but emphasized the increased physiological stress of the additional weight, limited storage space left on firefighters’ backs, the limited incremental increase in protection, the firefighter survey that showed a desire for a lighter weight/less bulky shelter, and the trend towards decreased number of annual fire shelter deployments. The results of the 2014 nation-wide firefighter survey was held in high regard. The results of the desire of a new shelter was as follows:

firefighter fire shelter survey

The researchers determined that the current fire shelter continues to provide the most practical amount of protection given the tradeoffs of weight, volume (bulk), durability, and material toxicity.

Slight modifications will be made to the current design to use material more efficiently, as well as updating the fire shelter’s polyvinyl chloride (PVC) bag to ensure a more reliable opening.

Based on these findings the National Wildfire Coordinating Group decided on May 14, 2019 to accept the recommendation from the NWCG Equipment Technology Committee’s recommendation to retain use of the current fire shelter.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

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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.

6 thoughts on “Five year effort to improve fire shelter fails”

  1. The title of the article is biased. The U.S. Forest Service has a program in place to review all wildland fire Personal Protective Equipment (Helmet, Pants, Gloves, Fire Shelters, etc.) on a specific schedule. Yarnell happened, yes, but it was time to review the fire shelter based on its schedule for review. The hard working dedicated employees at Missoula could come up with a better shelter, yes, but firefighters would be weighed down carrying it. At this time they are limited to the materials available. Let’s give those folks the credit they deserve.

    1. Peter, just because someone has a different opinion than you, it does not mean they are biased. Here is the definition of “biased”:

      “unfairly prejudiced for or against someone or something”

  2. The process here reminds me of the US military’s occasional efforts to replace the M-16 or other systems over the years. Various options are tried out but nothing ends up being a significant improvement over the original item. Also cost wasn’t even a factor in evaluating the new fire shelters, where that can be a significant factor in military trials. It’s good that an effort was made at least and some minor improvements are the end result. I am curious about the one design that failed at the manufacturing stage. Maybe in a few years it will be practical?

  3. A comprehensive effort was made but the results as far as weight and size did not work out. Personal body armor is a good example of weight, ability of the individual to still get their job done and protection. There is some very effective armor out there but it’s heavy, bulky, hot and a pain to wear much less work in. So departments choose a lighter grade armor as an efficient compromise. Part of the compromise is to train officers to change tactics when doing their job. Take fewer risks. So in fire we ensure firefighters either don’t enter into overly dangerous situations or very carefully evaluate them beforehand. Wild land firefighter have a pretty good set of basic rules, now all we have to do is ensure we follow them and hopefully avoid shelter deployments. Shelters are an important part of the PPE package but an item only to be used when all else fails.

  4. Very true. This blog site is very biased against any good work the Federal agencies do.

  5. The title “Five year effort to improve fire shelter fails” is misleading and not appropriate . There was not a failure to find a suitable replacement. With all factors considered the current shelter material and design are the best compromise between weight and protection. There are better materials/designs however there is a significant weight and/or size increase of the units. There are a multitude of factors to consider and I feel this team did a good job evaluating all possibilities.. I am curious since Canada stopped using shelters if there have been any entrapments or fatalities related to a lack of fire shelter use?


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