A firefighter’s job is wrought with danger and uncertainty: collapsing buildings, forest fires, stranded people, and the list goes on. These kinds of obstacles come to mind quickly when we think about firefighters. It’s less likely that we think of water vapor as hindering their work. Undergraduate researchers in the Fiber Science and Apparel Design Program at Cornell’s College of Human Ecology are working to reduce this encumbrance. Wanru Ji ’15, Megan Rodrigues ’15, and Eleni Toubanos ’16—working with Professor Susan Ashdown, Fiber Science and Apparel Design—aim to provide firefighting teams with the gear that best allows them to focus on their main objective: fighting fires.
A New Use for Not-So-New Materials
In the past, testing firefighting suits for places where water could penetrate them was done by hosing the suit over with water and then looking over it for leaks. Now, the Human Ecology research team has designed firefighting suits with cloth panels made of the same material as sweatshirts and pants, which they sew with electroconductive thread.
“Because the thread is electroconductive, the circuit we’ve created turns on a switch when a water droplet passes through the surface of the material, and we can see exactly where the leak is,” said Toubanos.
“Our technology is based on bed-wetting underwear,” Ji chuckled. The detector is hooked to the panels so when water penetration completes the circuit, an alarm sounds. With Professor Ashdown’s help—the team’s materials specialist—the group determined that 100 percent gray cotton would maximize the visibility of water stains and that noncorrosive stainless steel thread would work best.
Jeffrey O. Stull, head of International Personnel Protection Inc. sponsors the project. Stull approached Professor Ashdown for help on his idea. “Jeff had done research on this before but not much, so he came to us because he thought we could seriously improve the design for effectiveness,” said Ashdown.
“He had just obtained a baby diaper bed-wetting detector. We took it apart and figured out how to work with it!” said Rodrigues.
The researchers agree that it’s been a very interactive collaboration. They engage often with Stull through videoconferencing, and he comes to Ithaca frequently to meet in person. He provides a constant thread of feedback from his team as well as from his colleagues at conferences, to which he always invites the Cornell team.
The team’s specialized testing mannequin, affectionately called Fritz for his “Germanic chin,” visits Stull for testing at his facilities, giving the two teams more opportunities for collaboration. “Without Jeff, we really wouldn’t have been able to improve our designs as much as we have—it’s really exciting to have a professional take such an interest in our work and to use what we’ve created for actual testing!” Ji said.
There’s still work to be done, despite the success the teams have already had. “The initial goal was to come up with a prototype that works so the testing would be smoother. Now the goal is to actually get it manufactured!”
“He had just obtained a baby diaper bed-wetting detector. We took it apart and figured out how to work with it!”
The Cornell team also wants to work on imperfections in their design, for instance improving the neckpiece to make it more watertight and adding head- and mouthpieces to the test suit. They’re hoping their research will contribute to making firefighters’ suits safer and more effective, from fire and water resistance to ease of use. “What we’re learning indicates that changes need to be made in design, which affect what suits will look like—that, if you can believe it, is one of the biggest problems!” Toubanos says.
Firefighters, like many groups of professionals, have a strong sense of collective tradition that makes them hesitant to accept new technology that will change their look. Toubanos says, “The solution will probably be to develop innovative techniques of incorporating the new methods and materials that we’re discovering into the suits. We want to make sure that the suits look the same as they have traditionally but with all the new improvements!”