High Vis?

By Charlie Palmer     chicken_hi_vis_jacket_yellow_chicken.jpg

I pored over hunting catalogs and websites. I watched video after video, and read hundreds of product reviews. I had made a vow with myself that this year was going to be different. Having drawn a coveted special permit in a hunting district known for its big bull elk, changes in my usual approach were going to be made.

Instead of hunting all over the state, my efforts were going to be focused in this one geographic area. Instead of my propensity for road hunting or not getting very far from the truck when I did decide to hike, this year the ventures would be farther afield and deeper into the backcountry.

And lastly, adjustments in my apparel needed to be made. For years, I have gotten by with a hodgepodge collection of camouflage clothing, none of it expensive or technical in its construction. My frugality on this front often left me wet, cold, and looking like some kind of militia reject.

So I took it upon myself to learn as much as I could about high-end camouflage hunting clothes. Thus my previously described research efforts.

Having decided on a specific company and some of the products from them that I needed, I plunked down several Benjamins and checked this item off of my pre-season action plan.

Although significantly lighter in the wallet, my excitement about staying warm, dry, and better hidden this season began to build. Having spent so much time immersed in the finer points of concealment clothing, I could not help but think about another type of effective camouflage with which I was also quite familiar: the Nomex clothing that wildland firefighters wear. Let’s be honest. When it comes to blending into our surrounding environments, green or khaki fire pants and a dirty yellow shirt do a fantastic job of helping us stay less visible out in the woods. But is this what we want?

As someone who is intrigued by risk management, and the actions that humans can take to minimize or mitigate some of our exposures, I have watched closely as multiple other professions have embraced the usage of high visibility clothing.

Whether it be the construction trades, highway workers, railroads, airline ramp personnel, waste collectors, or various other public safety officials, hi vis clothing (often times coupled with reflective striping) is everywhere, it seems. They must be wearing it for some reason, right?

Interestingly, despite the surge in its usage popularity, there has been very little research done on its effectiveness. Furthermore, in the few studies that have been completed the results have not necessarily been conclusive. While a Danish study found that a sample of nearly 7,000 cyclists who wore a high visibility yellow jacket had a 47% lower chance of personal injury accidents when compared to those cyclists who did not wear one (Lahrmann et al, 2018), research from Nottingham University Hospital’s NHS Trust and Nottingham University concluded that cyclists wearing hi vis jackets actually had an increased chance of collisions (NHS, 2016). Investigators theorized that cyclists wearing high visibility apparel may be encouraged to take more exposed positions on the road. However, the study only reviewed 76 total accidents.

Wildland firefighting is risky work. Unfortunately, accidents and fatalities happen each and every year.  In how many of these mishaps was visibility (or lack thereof) a factor? Could hi vis flame resistant (FR) apparel help reduce these figures?  These are questions to which we currently do not have answers.

A little over four years ago, I submitted a proposal to the the US Forest Service Technology and Development Program recommending that an analysis/investigation of high visibility FR clothing for wildland firefighters be undertaken. Unfortunately, the proposal was rejected.

My idea vanquished, I put my interest in the topic onto the back burner, and I moved onto other projects. And there it stayed until I read the Horse Park Fire Entrapment FLA. A lookout running for her life. A lead plane frantically trying to find her for 40 minutes. Thankfully, all involved that day made it out safely, but it was a very close call. Would high visibility clothing have helped?

One of the lessons at the end of the FLA brought up this very question: Are there advantages to high vis flame resistant clothing in the wildland fire environment? I say it’s time to find out.

What then, if anything, can be done in terms of next steps? To me, it makes sense that further investigation is needed. This would require the assistance of the Technology and Development Program. Maybe I need to resubmit my original proposal?

Perhaps the analysis could start with a limited production of different versions of high visibility Nomex fire shirts with reflective striping (green, orange, green/orange combination). With hi vis FR fires shirts available, a small number of crews could voluntarily choose to wear them. They could then evaluate them on such things as effectiveness, user satisfaction, and ability to retain visibility after becoming dirty.

Or, perhaps I’m just barking up the wrong tree? Maybe those in the field have no interest or see no utility in high visibility clothing. And I’m okay with that if that’s their feedback. It just seems odd to me that so many other professions have adopted high visibility attire for their workers as a means of risk management and wildland fire has not yet followed their lead.

What thoughts do you have on this matter?


Lahrmann, H., Madsen, T., Olesen, A. V., Madsen, J. C., & Hels, T. (2018). The effect of a yellow bicycle jacket on cyclist accidents. Safety Science, (108), 209-217.

Nottingham University Hospitals annual report. (2016). Retrieved (October 26, 2018) from https://www.nuh.nhs.uk/download.cfm?doc=docm93jijm4n2243.pdf&ver=3305.

22 thoughts on “High Vis?

  1. I think it’s very important to wear High visibility PPE for wildland firefighter. We in Sardegna (Italia) use It in forest Fire and the visibility of the operator and firefighter help the security (for example with air Attack).

  2. I am trained in both wildland and structure fire. In structure fire I have seen how the green highly reflective SCBA composite tanks can be seen by flashlites for a great (great being a very relative term) distance even when the red, orange and other colors are lost. Yes, this is a wavelength artifact of the human eye sensitivity and the frequencies transmitted through different media. I have also seen instances when high vis painted tools and equipment are right next to me and others and are lost to sight by soot and smoke cover. I have been on night patrol and seen flashing lights work quite well. Total loss in daylight. The banana suit color was orinally for visibilty, bright orange reserved for prison crews for awhile now also an alternative to yellow. Dark and light stripes have been tried, no good either.

    Bright and reflective are not always the same thing. When you add the fun fact that carbon is one of the best absorants around, from optical to chemical and accoutic characteristics it is hard to beat. The one direction I can see in addition to bright and reflective materials and colors is to use counter camoflage patterning. That said, I think we are stuck until we can make carbon transparent. Just saying!

    On Tue, Apr 16, 2019 at 9:01 AM Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center wrote:

    > wildfirelessons posted: “By Charlie Palmer I pored over hunting > catalogs and websites. I watched video after video, and read hundreds of > product reviews. I had made a vow with myself that this year was going to > be different. Having drawn a coveted special permit in a huntin” >

    • Working in a discipline where being more difficult to be seen by others is definitely not a desirable attribute, it makes sense that there be at least a cursory investigation into protective gear with increased reflectivity and visibility. The issue becomes more complex as more reflective materials cannot introduce an increase in flammable characteristics. The step that everyone can take NOW to increase their ability to be seen was mentioned in another reply. The idea of never washing your Nomex shirt for fear of looking like a newbie is a throwback to try and appear more “Barny bad a$$” around others. The research and change of culture in the urban/metropolitan world where firefighters are no longer permitted to wear their firefighting protective clothing inside their station and must undergo some type of decon at the scene because of the carcinogenic ash/soot/chemicals should be a strong consideration in someone’s concern for their health. I am sure some will say, but it is “just” smoke and ash from burning trees. Look at the research and chemicals involved before you push the send button. In the most simplistic terms, isn’t tobacco just burning leaves too? There are so many risks out in the field, why purposely contribute to one by trying to look a certain way. It’s not rocket science to swap shirts out every couple of shifts to eliminate as much potential exposure as possible. At the same time, a clean shirt is a more visible shirt. Unfortunately I can already hear the scorn by those who want to appear dirty as a sign of firefighting status.

  3. Seems logical that improved visibility would improve safety. But, until we can get the wildland world to get over the idea that filthy clothing is a sign of a good firefighter, and the aversion to switching into something cleaner, hi-viz won’t be hi-viz for long. Hopefully the wildland world can catch up to the structural world on both accounts – the value of shedding carcinogens and switching to cleaner gear, AND the value of visibility. Maybe a push for hi-viz will support the push to clean up (when feasible – we all understand some times it’s simply not an option).

  4. it’s always amazing to read about such common sense suggestions as reflective clothing for wildland firefighters being rejected. Remember when drones first came out they were banned from wildland fire scenes…now being regularly deployed? Where did I read recently: 100 years of firefighting progress…impeded only by tradition?

  5. My experience does not come from the Wildland Fire arena, but from a county Search & Rescue team, who stitched to Hi Vis Green/Yellow and or reflective clothing. We discovered that we could identify our personnel from over a mile away in open country, and were much more visible even from aircraft. This made it easier to keep track of our people, and identify if the person moving around a mile away was one of us, or perhaps the person we were searching for. It was a tremendous benefit for our team! Just my two cents worth!

  6. 3M makes a very innovative product specifically for Wildfire and meets a lot of worker needs for sweat management and has great visuals that don’t stay dirty and reflective properties to increase day and night operation efficiency. To add these products for worker safety is not a cheap task however staff are happy to see them added for safety and efficiency aspects they struggle with. The only downside is pictures and flash; pretty minor risk relative to the reward..

  7. I am a FF and drone pilot for my department. One potential mission we tested was finding lost firefighters on the ground. Even when a FF radio’ed me with their GPS position, and I flew towards towards that, it was extremely difficult to actually see them on the ground/in the woods. The clothing blends in with the terrain in most cases making this type of search one of the least successful drone missions we have.

  8. Coming from a fire/rescue aviation perspective, the most effective sight catcher during the day is a mirror flash (as long as you have sunshine), which probably doesn’t help in this application. It’s been my experience that the orange inmate crew clothing is pretty visible compared to the surrounding terrain in a fire area. I also think the 20 or so number of crew members creates a larger area of color contrast which helps. After dark any light source can be picked up from miles away through NVG’s, even matches, lighters and cellphones. Our rescue crews wear reflective stripes on their clothing and when lit up with aircraft search or landing lights show up very well even in heavily treed areas. Food for thought.

  9. As Geoff mentioned above, most wildland firefighters are not interested in wearing a bright, new shirt because they don’t want to stand out as someone who is new or inexperienced, etc. I think perhaps even more unfortunate than that is the fact that many wildland firefighters remove the reflective stripes that come standard on their hardhats. This is a safety and awareness feature of our hardhats that was already paid for by the taxpayers, and we throw it away. So not only are we not making an effort to remain visible we are going out of our way and wasting taxpayer resource to be less visible.

  10. I go back and forth about how I would feel about wearing high visibility clothing but I ultimately don’t see any harm in it. What I do see and it bothers me a bit, is camouflage pants, packs, and other gear. Since when did we start trying to become invisible on fires? The fire doesn’t care what you are wearing but I’m sure your lookout does. Visibility is important.

  11. A) If it rarely gets washed regardless of color it wont show up well B) Better figure out a standard for when the color is too faded either by UVs or washing or heat that gear should be retired C) IME hi vis clothes when worn daily fade within a year and by 2 yrs is very dull even when clean…How will any agency afford to replace all that gear that functionally is still 100% but doesnt meet some visibility standard?
    D)If relective strips are going to be part of it they wash and fade quickly as well E) Just Hi Vis shirt, or pants, or pack or hard hat or all the above? How much is enough? E) How and who will enforce such a standard? Will an IMT really turn away a whole Shot crew checking in at ICP on an incident that has been begging for help for a week and finally gets that resource given to them only to find their Hi Vis just isnt clean enough? If its not going to be enforced equally across the board the whole thing may as well get dropped now F) Why not skip the wardrobe change and just issue a gov issue emergency strobe beacon to everyone? That would fix the perceived visibility problem quick and its already in the government “system”
    Safety is top importance for sure but is changing an entire country’s cache of fire clothes going to have any impact large or small in our safety or the associated statistics and the way we work in the field?

    • Your points about standards and uniform implementation/enforcement are well stated.

      It seems to me, the proper starting point is demonstrating the value or lack of value HiViz clothing provides or doesn’t in the real world environment over time. Without a real study of its effectiveness over more than one week on one incident with one crew, funded by the manufacture, it is just another idea taken or rejected on faith.

  12. Ten plus years ago I sat in on my first NWCG Risk Management Committee meeting as the Eastern Area States Fire Supervisors Representative. If I remember correctly PPE was the hot topic, specially gloves and visibility issues.
    I have had this discussion with our contract pilots before about visibility of objects on the ground, They fly many different kinds of missions in all kinds of conditions, from wildfires, crop spraying, to pipeline work. I asked what stands out the most in their eyes? Florescent Pink!
    As newbie on this committee I thought should I say we should be wearing hot pink nomex shirts? Well I did speak up and we had a lively discussion.
    Last year I reached out to most of the FR manufactures based in the United States, none were making florescent pink material. So I settled on a Crew Boss HI VIS shirt to try out this year. Unfortunately here in Pennsylvania it’s been raining ever since the new shirt arrived.

    • Here in Oz we seem to be a bit of a nanny state and Hi vis is everywhere, to the point that on building sites etc, it can just be a sea of yellow, possibly defeating the purpose?. When we are FF we are issued a Hi vis work shirt(also our standard work shirt) and dark green Nomex pants(with reflective stripe around knee) and a yellowy/green Nomex jacket. The hi vis aspect of the shirt is lost after a few washes and the jacket does tend to blend in with our bush. When im flagging tracks to be trittered I use bright pink survey tape as there is nothing else even close to that colour in the bush and stands out like dogs balls. I have seen the bright pink hi vis on some building sites/road works and when I ribbed them they reckon it takes a real man to wear pink. lol. Basically the colour needs to be something that is unusual in the surrounding environment.

  13. Alder trees were torching in Western Washington last month. Maybe we could get some of those fluorescent pink shirts there for this season. A little rain would help. On a serious note, we state troopers were issued our first high vis vests 25 years ago. I was working Stevens Pass in (on) the Wenatchee National Forest then (now Okanogan-Wenatchee, of course), and I reluctantly tried wearing my vest one cloudy day in the late winter. There was still snow all around. Later, a DOT plow driver explained how dramatic the difference in my visibility was. He said troopers usually blend in with the tree trunks, but he could tell I was there because the vest stood out. Made me a believer. And now law enforcement seems to universally sacrifice some stealthiness by wearing high vis vests around traffic, and the structural fire service has those ugly diagonal safety stripes on the backs of all their rigs. I don’t know what all this high vis stuff does to the “cool kid scoring system”, but if it saves lives, I’m all for it.

  14. While being more visible is good, what are the actual situations where lack of visibility has resulted in an injury or fatality? Contrast that to the number of injuries and fatalities we experience from heat. I would rather put the emphasis on PPE designed to reduce actual hazards rather than perceived ones.

  15. As a firefighter with over 16 years experience with hardcore flatbacking and hiding out, I’m strongly against high visibility PPE.

  16. Pingback: High Visibility — More to the Story . . . | Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

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