Firefighter's Death Inspires Life-Saving Fire Curtains

Fire barrier curtains are made of multiple layers of aluminum and a ceramic core that creates a last-resort refuge

By Lolita Lopez and Stephanie Barnes
|  Thursday, Jul 4, 2013  |  Updated 12:15 PM PDT
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The deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona is bringing attention to the dangerous work firefighters do. Local firefighters are making safety a priority, and devices like fire curtains and fire shelters are helping them stay safe. Lolita Lopez reports from South LA for the NBC4 News on July 3, 2013.

Lolita Lopez

The deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona is bringing attention to the dangerous work firefighters do. Local firefighters are making safety a priority, and devices like fire curtains and fire shelters are helping them stay safe. Lolita Lopez reports from South LA for the NBC4 News on July 3, 2013.

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Protective "Fire Curtains" Aren't Just for Engines

After Jim Roth's brother died while battling a fire in Colorado, he set out to create window barriers that can be put inside the windows of fire engines to protect against oncoming flames. In this raw video posted July 3, 2013, Roth explains how residents can use the curtains.
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The newest development in fire safety is a silver curtain that goes inside a fire truck and makes a safe area in the cab for firefighters to find refuge from the flames.

“When the fire blows over, it will give you about five minutes where you will be protected,” said Don Frazeur, assistant chief with the Los Angeles Fire Department.

Fire barrier curtains are made of multiple layers of aluminum and a ceramic core that creates a last-resort refuge in each engine of the Los Angeles Fire Department.

“The first that will fail due to heat will be the windows – it will actually crack and blow out – then it becomes an opening, that you might as well be outside,” Frazeur said.

SoCal firefighters have been injured in past blazes, like the Chatsworth fire of 1993 and the Malibu Fire three years later. Those events inspired the fire department to look for the extra protection.

Their quest led them to Jim Roth and his company, Storm King Mountain Technologies, based in Camarillo.

“It’s a personal quest. I lost my brother,” Roth said.

Roth's brother, Roger, was 29 when he died battling a wildfire in the South Canyon area of Colorado.

“He was one of the few people that managed to get into his fire shelter but he did not survive and that began my work,” Roth said.

The fire that killed Roth’s brother started in July 1994. The blaze, which started with a lightning strike and eventually took a tragic turn, overcame a total of 14 firefighters. The situation is eerily similar to the conditions of the recent Arizona fire in which 19 firefighters perished.

“I'm just so sorry for these families that have lost their loved ones in this fire. I know what my family went through” Roth emotionally said.

And because the tragedies continue, so do Roth’s efforts for ultimate survival here and around the world.

“In Australia alone, we have had 18 documented saves,” Roth said.

In one case, several residents ran under the curtain to wait out a burn-over with firefighters. The residents pulled almost a full tent of the material and survived without even a singed hair.

Locally, the department says the curtains have made a difference, too.

“In the Griffith park fire in 2007, we had another engine caught and they actually deployed the curtain successfully and there were no injuries as a result of that fire,” Frazeur said.

The fire barrier curtains, first installed in 1999, are now part of every engine and most other equipment like the dozers.

Roth has now set his sights on improving the fire shelters firefighters must carry with them for any wild land or brush fire. Current shelters are designed by the U.S. Forest Service and were last updated in 2003.

Previous prototypes have been tested up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Roth is working on a new prototype that has not been marketed yet.

“As an engineer I thought here's an opportunity to take a really bad ugly thing and turn it into something positive-turn it into something good,” Roth said.

Photo Credit: PostIndependent.com

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