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 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.