After hearing about a rookie firefighter in Dallas who was forced into medical retirement after sustaining burns to his hands, 22-year veteran firefighter Johnny Collins had an epiphany.
“Burnt hands and burns in general are an inherent risk when you’re a firefighter,” Collins said. “But I’ve known and heard about too many of my firefighting brothers and sisters who have had their careers cut short by hand burns, so I when I heard about that young man, I realized that I had to do something about the gloves we use.”
A firefighter since the age of 16, Collins currently serves in the Dallas/Fort Worth suburb of Colleyville. Although he had been concerned for years by the performance of the leather gloves used in firefighting, he was now spurred to begin researching glove materials that would not only be waterproof and heat resistant, but also render the dexterity crucial for safe firefighting.
“I thought to myself, here we are wearing leather gloves that absorb heat and water, eventually becoming a soggy mess,” Collins said. “Even with the addition of vapor barriers, firefighter’s gloves are much the same as they’ve been since the 1700s. I wondered why we couldn’t use technology associated with NASA’s Johnson Space Center to come up with space age protective gloves?”
It was then that Collins noticed a newspaper article about the Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program (SATOP) and went online to fill out a Request for Technical Assistance. He was impressed by how easy it was to submit the one page form and the lack of red tape associated with making a request.
“I really didn’t think I’d hear back about my request. I just thought that there were probably a lot more important people and companies who need help from a program like SATOP,” he said. “Less than a week after I submitted the request, my wife answered the phone and said that it was a call from SATOP for me – boy, was I surprised!”
SATOP paired Collins’ technical challenge with Casey Osborne, a mechanical engineer with the ExtraVehicular Activity (EVA) group at The Boeing Company in Houston. Osborne’s experience with Multi-Layer Insulation blankets, which protect sensitive hardware from extreme temperatures in space, made him the logical choice to find the best materials for Collins’ gloves. Osborne researched and recommended several materials that Collins could use to create his gloves. He also sent Collins contact information of experts in fibrous materials, possible manufacturers, and assisted with questions about stitching procedures.
After testing the materials, Collins decided on Zylon®, made by Toyobo Co., LTD, which is used in lightweight bullet-resistant vests, satellites and aircraft engine fragment barriers.
Collins said the next steps are to produce a prototype glove, and undergo rigorous testing. The ultimate goal would be approval from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
“Getting the new glove approved by the NFPA will be a big challenge, but Mr. Collins has a good plan for the testing phase of his new design,” Osborne said. “I believe that SATOP and its Alliance Partners can provide additional assistance as he proceeds with the approval process.”
Although Collins knows that he has a long road ahead of him before his gloves become available to firefighters everywhere, he is determined to go the distance. He estimates that development of the gloves will cost him several thousand dollars a year. He said he accepts that and stated philosophically, “I know that with SATOP’s assistance and NASA’s expertise, these gloves will aid firefighters to protect our communities while heightening the level of personal safety. Really, what price can you put on a person’s hands?”