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How has NASA helped save firefighters?

Space-age Suits

In the late 1990s, the Houston Fire Department took a trip down to the local NASA office to see what they could do to help them develop a better helmet, which hadn't changed much since the 1800s. The discussion began, and soon a partnership developed that had them rethinking the entire suit. In 2000, NASA unveiled this new firefighter suit, developed with the Houston Fire Department, the Department of Defense and Lockheed Martin [source: Petty]. Its features are pretty amazing, but the changes made so much sense that it makes you wonder why they didn't do this earlier. The Houston Fire Department laid out the objectives for the suit, and NASA and its partners made it a reality.

While PBI helps keep the fire's heat away from your body, this suit has an active cooling feature that circulates liquids inside. That one improvement raised the maximum temperature the suits could be exposed to from 300 F (149 C) to 500 F (260 C) [source: Petty]. This is a huge difference when you consider that more firefighters die each year from their bodies overheating than from smoke or even the fire itself [source: Foley]. This active cooling also keeps the temperature of the firefighter's oxygen supply low, reducing the risk of a deadly explosion.

Burning buildings tend to fall apart, causing lots of falling debris and collapsing structure. The suit's improved impact resistance means this debris, while still dangerous, poses less of a danger than it did before [source: Foley].

Previously, firefighters often had to fight blazes blind because of all the smoke and steam. Infrared vision inside the helmet gives them the ability to work far more efficiently by attacking the hottest spots without running into them and finding victims more quickly. The faster they can do their job, the less time they have to spend in the burning building and the more lives are saved [source: Petty].

Better two-way radios built into the helmets of the new suits keep life-saving lines of communication open. In fact, in 1976, NASA first helped Public Technology Inc. to improve the firefighter's radio through modular construction and improved design [source: NASA Spinoff].

Making buildings stronger and keeping firefighters protected from heat, smoke and falling debris so they can work more safely and efficiently is one thing (a really cool thing). But read on to see how NASA is reconfiguring high-tech weaponry to use against forest fires.