Wind. Rain. Hazardous terrain. Low visibility. Unstable air. These are all known obstacles that rescue helicopter teams face daily. The gloves used to protect the hands of first responders guiding hoist rescue cables should not be one of these obstacles, and yet, they are.
Rescue helicopter hoist operators wear gloves to protect the hand that guides the hoist cable during rescue descents and ascents. Hoist operators need to use a significant amount of force to mitigate the cable swinging. From hurricane evacuations and dive rescues to rescuing stranded hikers on a mountain side, missions vary and no two are ever alike. Current hoist gloves can wear out quickly from friction, subjecting the wearer to sudden severe injury. The glove wear can also result in frayed debris that can get caught in the cable–which can shorten the life of the rescue cable and compromise the hoist system.
Members of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) First Responder Resource Group, including a California helicopter rescue medic, brought the need for better hoist rescue gloves to S&T’s attention. They were looking for a better solution, one that would not only last more than one or two rescues without fraying but would also offer increased flexibility and comfort.
“Hoist operators were experiencing glove degradation, damaging their hands, leaving frayed material in the rescue cable, [we] wanted to look at a glove that would provide adequate protection as well as durability, allow for dexterity, as well as tactility for the hoist rescue operator,” said S&T Program Manager Kimberli Jones-Holt.
To accomplish this, S&T partnered with Higher Dimension Materials, Inc. (HDM) and the North Carolina State University Textile Protect and Comfort Center (TPACC) to identify and develop the most appropriate fabric and supporting materials for an enhanced rescue hoist glove. The goal was to provide first responders with a durable, comfortable, cost-effective glove that will have a longer life span and maintain functionality without sacrificing the necessary dexterity needed by rescue helicopter personnel.
In December 2019, S&T’s National Urban Security Technology Laboratory (NUSTL) facilitated an Operational Field Assessment (OFA) of two glove prototypes, designed and produced by HDM, at the United States Coast Guard (USCG) Aviation Technical Training Center (ATTC) in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
“The results of NUSTL’s OFAs identify strengths and weaknesses of the product, with a focus on the functionality for first responders,” explained Kris Dooley, NUSTL OFA Lead. “Everything we assess is to increase their safety and effectiveness on the job.”
HDM and TPACC examined used rescue hoist gloves to identify wear patterns from cable friction and limitations of current designs. Hoist gloves that are currently available on the market allow for only one task: using their hand to guide the hoist cable to complete a rescue. Through better design and the use of advanced materials, S&T’s enhanced gloves will have more dexterity, which will lend itself to tasks that require fine motor functionality like flipping switches, operating the radio, or being able to grip the helicopter floor while moving tactically throughout the cabin in preparation of using the hoist. After completion of several rounds of testing between multiple prototypes, the final two prototype gloves were selected to be evaluated at the OFA.
The high-performance fabrics chosen for the enhanced rescue hoist glove design were HDM’s SuperFabric® material. SuperFabric® is a patented technology that is made by taking a commercially-available base fabric and attaching propriety guard plates onto it in a specific arrangement. The gaps between the guard plates allow for complete flexibility. The geometry, thickness and size of each guard plate, as well as the base fabric, can be varied depending on the desired attributes. The resulting materials are designed to deliver a range of high-performance features, such as increased abrasion resistance, durability, stain resistance, quick-dry and more.
The final version of the enhanced rescue hoist glove will allow first responders to perform a wider variety of tasks, since the glove is intended to offer increased flexibility with a better overall fit and feel. With the improved design and the use of the SuperFabric® material, the gloves will provide for more mobility and dexterity than what is currently on the market. The new glove design provides protection from the heat of a moving cable and can be used either over an under glove or as an all-in-one protective glove. The increased durability of the new glove would result in fewer gloves having to be purchased, which provides overall cost savings.
The December 2019 OFA consisted of five evaluators from the first responder community and members of the uniformed services. Having evaluators from three different entities: USCG, North Carolina National Guard, and San Diego Fire & Rescue (California), was important because there are varying techniques when it comes to a hoist rescue missions and the final hoist glove needs to be able to accommodate each.
The test plan, designed by S&T’s NUSTL, had the participants evaluate two different enhanced rescue hoist glove prototypes, along with the one they currently use, to test the gloves’ suitability for use while performing rescue missions. The USCG ATTC provided a unique location for the OFA with two steel cable hoists located above a pool and the ability to simulate various weather conditions using both wind and rain machines.
Emergency responders were asked to perform various tasks to simulate a hoist rescue. Each of the tasks were performed twice using each of the gloves, once dry and once wet. Examples of tasks performed include donning and doffing the gloves, operating hoist controllers, buckling and unbuckling harnesses, operating the hoist with a variety of weights and types of carriages in various weather conditions, maneuvering on a helicopter floor, and attaching and detaching carabiners.
Throughout each of the tests a NUSTL Data Collector was present taking notes and photographs of the gloves to track the durability and feedback of the evaluators. Responders evaluated each of the enhanced hoist rescue gloves on durability, dexterity, and compatibility with their current gear.
“This assessment is important because we really want to get the best out of the product we’re going to use,” said Staff Sergeant Steven Highet of the North Carolina National Guard. “We’ve basically been using leather gloves for the last 20 years and obviously they’re not up to standard compared to what we just used and if I had my guys out in Linville Gorge doing a rescue at 3 o’clock in the morning, the last thing in the world I want them to be worrying about is their hoist glove.”
USGC Aviation Maintenance Technician, First Class William T. Smith of the U.S. Coast Guard Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Alabama, agreed: “You don’t want to be hindered by the equipment that you’re using when you’re out on a search and rescue case and so it’s important to make sure that we have the best equipment possible for our flight mechanics in the field.”
The feedback gained during assessments like this one is vital to S&T’s research and development efforts. The evaluators provided significant feedback on the overall glove performance and endurance. The recommendations noted by the evaluators were taken into consideration during the glove redesign to include: blousing reduction, a more visible wear indicator, higher durability of the inner pad, modification of inner pad color and shortened cuff length, finger length and reduction of non-slip for greater flexibility.
“The partnership between S&T and HDM resulted in an enhanced rescue hoist glove with increased flexibility, durability, and dexterity. The glove design uses cushioning materials offering protection to the thumb crotch (purlicue) area, the index and little finger, and a leather guard to alleviate inconsistent glove performance when wet,” said Jones-Holt.
NUSTL will provide a report of the findings from the December 2019 enhanced hoist rescue glove OFA that will be posted to the S&T website. S&T will work with HDM to incorporate feedback and then to commercialize a glove for use by emergency response agencies, search and rescue teams, the U.S. military, and more. One prototype will be commercialized and should be available for purchase by the end of 2020.