What Protects our Protectors?

Rescue workers in raft

Previously published in Plastics Engineering and posted with permission from the Society of Plastics Engineers.

What do the people who run into burning homes, battle devastating wildfires, brave raging floodwaters, and help stop epidemics have in common? The search and rescuers, firefighters, police, soldiers, bomb technicians, and healthcare workers fighting outbreaks of deadly disease?

Obviously: a heroic job. Not so obviously: personal protective equipment made with plastics.

Most of us know that our bicycle helmets are made with shock absorbing plastics to help protect us in a fall. But it’s less well known that much of the gear that protects these everyday heroes—the people who protect us—also is made with high-performance plastics.

To honor those who protect us, Plastics Make it Possible® in October 2017 launched “Protecting Our Heroes: A Tribute to Safety and Innovation,” an online gallery, video, and traveling exhibit. “Protecting Our Heroes” features a dozen everyday heroes from across the country and tells their personal stories of harrowing experiences on the job.

“Protecting Our Heroes” includes a search and rescue specialist who helps save flood victims, a smokejumper who parachutes into remote locations to fight wildfires, and the nation’s first female bomb technician. These three heroes also are highlighted in a short online video that has been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.

In addition, the online gallery and interactive exhibit highlight the role of personal protective equipment (PPE) made with plastics in helping keep these and other heroes safe. This includes plastics such as tough polycarbonate plastic helmets and goggles to help prevent head and eye injuries, as well as innovative neoprene plastic “dry suits” that help protect water rescuers from frigid temperatures and debris. And many more.

These everyday heroes employ a strikingly wide variety of safety gear made with plastics. For example:

  • Linda Cox – As a bomb technician, Linda travels the world detecting and disarming bombs. PPE: mine detector that locates explosives using magnetic sensors, made with durable plastics, which eliminates the interference of magnetic materials; specialized transparent goggles to help prevent eye injuries; boots made with tough plastic composites to help protect her feet.
  • Mike McMillan – As a former smokejumper, Mike parachuted into remote locations to fight wildfires. PPE: lightweight plastic fabric parachute to reach his target location; jumpsuit made with the same plastics as bullet-resistant vests for military personnel; tough plastic helmet to reduce the chance of head injury.
  • Jason Britt – As a search and rescue specialist, Jason saved people from drowning during Hurricane Matthew (2016). PPE: a full-body “dry suit” made with layers of high-performance, water-resistant yet breathable plastics that also provided insulation in contaminated, rapidly rising floodwaters over many days.
  • Josh McQuien – As a police officer investigating a burglary, Josh was shot in the chest by a suspect. PPE: a bullet-resistant vest made with tough plastic fibers that stopped the bullet.
  • Danny Lovato – As a firefighter, Danny once rushed into a particularly serious fire to rescue a trapped great-grandmother. PPE: multi-layer plastic composite helmet; composite-toe boots; fire-resistant coat and pants; oxygen mask that enabled him and the great-grandmother to breathe in the smoke-filled room.
  • Valene Bartmess – As a nurse, Valene cared for victims of an Ebola outbreak in Libya. PPE: protective plastic suit that enabled her to interact with infected people, consisting of a mask, goggles, hood, coverall, apron, two layers of gloves, boots, plus plastic tape to seal the wrists and ankles.
  • Derek Vigil – As a marine in Iraq, an IED exploded in Derek’s path, creating a 12-foot crater and throwing him seven feet. PPE: plastic goggles and bullet-resistant vest that kept him unharmed.

Many visitors to the pop-up exhibits in Boston and Atlanta were astonished that so much of the gear that protects our protectors is made with plastics. Several were particularly surprised to learn that so-called “bulletproof” vests worn by police and others are made with high-performance plastic fabrics that are lightweight and comfortable—and tough enough to resist a bullet. The plastic fabrics act as a net-like device and deform the bullet, dispersing its energy over a wide area so the victim will not feel its full force in the small area where it hits the vest. 

The online gallery in “Protecting Our Heroes” also highlights many of the advances in safety over the years that today we often take for granted. For example:

  • 1950s: Airplane evacuation slide – Durable, water-resistant nylon plastic fabric slides help stranded airplane passengers evacuate when needed, on land or water.
  • 1950s–1960s: Car seat belts – Industrial strength polyester makes seat belts tough, lightweight, and comfortable.
  • 1950s–1960s: Hard hats – Tough, lightweight plastic outer shells, plus cushioning foams that absorb impact, help protect workers from debris as well as electrical currents.
  • 1960s: Car airbags – Tough but flexible polyester and nylon plastics inflate in multiple car interior locations—in milliseconds—and then quickly deflate.
  • 1980s: Cut-resistant safety gloves – High-performance plastic fabrics help protect against heat and punctures, preventing a number of burns, cuts, and abrasions on the job.
  • 1990s: Safety goggles – Lightweight, shatter-resistant polycarbonate plastics—the same used in “bulletproof” glass—help protect workers’ eyes while providing a clear view.
  • 2000s: Composite-toe boots – Tough, strong, lightweight plastic composites helps keep workers’ feet and toes safer and more comfortable.

The “Protecting Our Heroes” gallery and video can be accessed online at plasticsmakeitpossible.com/heroes. Additional exhibit sites will be announced in the future.