Fire Suit Safety Project

Contact: Ralph Derickson

Photo of (left to right) David Atwood, chemistry professor; Jerrod Dempsey, biology student; John May, ERTL manager, and Niladri Narajam Gupta, doctoral student.
(left to right) David Atwood, chemistry professor; Jerrod Dempsey, biology student; John May, ERTL manager, and Niladri Narajam Gupta, doctoral student.

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Their research so far has shown that the three barriers in the suits, including the moisture barriers closest to the firemen’s skin, are equally contaminated with “a wide range of problematic chemicals. As they build up they will be very dangerous to firemen,” said Dempsey, who wants to go on to dental school after he graduates next year.

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (Jan. 5, 2004) -- A team of researchers at the University of Kentucky’s Tracy Farmer Center for the Environment is working on a project that may improve firefighters’ health and safety.

The UK research group, which includes faculty, staff and students, believes firefights may face unseen dangers to their health from contaminated fire suits, and they are developing a way to test those suits for hazardous, work-related chemical residue that might cause cancer and respiratory problems.

Team members, directed by UK chemistry professor and interim director of the Farmer Center David Atwood, take swatches of firefighters’ uniforms, mix them in solvents, and subject them to chemical analysis in UK’s new Environmental Research Training Laboratory (ERTL) in the UK College of Engineering.

The fire suits, or “turnout coats,” being tested came from a fire department in Ft. Thomas, Ky. The father of a biology senior involved in the research at UK, Jerrod Dempsey, is a doctor in Ft. Thomas; some of his patients are firefighters.

Dempsey and other members of the research team became interested in the research when they learned that the morbidity rate for retired firefighters from heart and respiratory disease as well as cancer is much higher than for persons in other occupations.

Their research so far has shown that the three barriers in the suits, including the moisture barriers closest to the firemen’s skin, are equally contaminated with “a wide range of problematic chemicals. As they build up they will be very dangerous to firemen,” said Dempsey, who wants to go on to dental school after he graduates next year.

Dempsey noted that the UK research on contaminated fire suits started long before the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. “But events that day have certainly given impetus to increase our efforts,” he said. The air pollution and subsequent contaminant exposure experienced by the New York firefighters “was just off the charts.”

In addition to developing tests to determine the level of contaminants in fire suits, the research team intends to work with private businesses to find improved ways to clean the potentially hazardous chemicals and contaminants out of the fire suits.

Both patents for the tests and business opportunities are potential outcomes of the research, said Atwood, “but we are pretty desperate for funding to continue the work and bring these possibilities to fruition.” Atwood highly praised the work of the research team and said it is an example of the university’s desire to have more undergraduate students, like Dempsey, involved in basic research.

“Jarred is definitely a ‘top gun’ student,” Atwood commented. “The project would not have been this successful without his involvement.”

An immediate product of the research effort is an academic article that the team is refining in hopes of getting it published in the Journal of Chromatography.

In addition to Atwood and Dempsey, other members of the UK research team are John May, ERTL facility manager in the Department of Civil Engineering in the College of Engineering, and Niladri Narajam Gupta, a graduate student in chemistry from Calcutta, India.


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