GLENDALE — After the 1993 wildfire season, Glendale firefighters Bert Rivera and Cordell Harges searched trade magazines and fire equipment stores for a product that would protect their faces from heat and flame and their lungs from airborne smoke, ash and carbon.
The wildfires that year, carried by high winds and fueled by dry brush, burned more than 170,000 acres in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Among the injured was Capt. Jan Bernard, a Los Angeles firefighter whose face was badly burned in the 2,000-acre fire in Santa Susana Pass near Chatsworth.
The image of that tragedy remained with Harges and Rivera, who looked for a product that would protect their faces beyond the shrouds and bandannas used by most wild-land firefighters. "We knew that there had to be some sort of product like that out there and we were convinced that we just weren't looking in the right catalogues," said Rivera, who's been with the Glendale Fire Department for eight years.
"The face is the one part of the body that's not protected by standard fire safety equipment," said Harges, a five-year veteran, explaining the need for such a product. Standard gear includes fire resistant brush jackets, pants, boots and gloves issued by most fire departments for use in wild-land fires.
But when Rivera and Harges could not find any protective facial masks, they decided to design their own and go into business. They call their product Hot Shield, a yellow face mask made of a blend of Kevlar and Nomex, two fire retardant materials used in making fire safety equipment. The mask was designed solely as a wild-land fire safety tool. Velcro attaches the mask at the back of the neck, and an oval-shaped cavity houses a particle mask that blocks harmful airborne substances and can be replaced as needed. To protect the neck, a cowl extends downward from the chin.
The mask costs about $75, with discounts for volume purchases. The Laguna Beach Fire Department, for example, purchased 53 masks for its full-time and reserve firefighters, and received a 10% discount, said Capt. Jim Dempsey.
So far, the inventors have sold about 5,000 units to about 40 fire departments, with sales totaling roughly $300,000, and the Los Angeles city and county fire departments are reviewing the product too, Rivera said.
Based on early tests, Glendale Fire Department Battalion Chief Dave Starr said he believes the mask will become standard equipment for the department's 160-man force. The mask will be tested in the next brush season, he said.
"There are some products that serve the same purpose, but I don't know of one that combines heat shield protection along with respiratory protection," Starr said. "I've been one of the guys out there with a bandanna around my face, and most people don't think they will ever get burned. But the day you need it, it's either on or it's off," he said.
The inventors are eager to show how well Hot Shield can take the heat: In demonstrations, Rivera dons the mask while Harges holds a blow torch against it.
The initial research and development was done at Harges' Victorville home, and after the basic design was conceived, Rivera became the salesman, working from his Monterey Park home while Harges fine-tuned the product. They incorporated under the name Hot Shield USA last April.
There was little competition from a couple of products advertised in trade magazines. About three months before the pair had their first prototype, an ambitious Northern California firefighter imported from England two items that sold for between $30 and $40, but they were made for use by welders and motorcycle riders, Harges said.
With the basic design squared away, the next challenge for this business was to find a way to market the product to the 43,000 or so fire departments around the nation.
Overcoming the large municipal bureaucracies involved seemed even more daunting. Most products used by fire departments must meet standards set by the National Fire Protection Assn. or Occupational Safety and Health Agency guidelines set forth by the state.
But because their product provides both respiratory and facial protection, there is no standard to compare it with, Harges contends.
To gain approval of the state agency, the inventors would have to petition the agency's standards board to adopt Hot Shield as required equipment, said Rick Rice, a spokesman for the California Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees Cal-OSHA. And the review process of the National Fire Protection Assn., based in Quincy, Mass., can take up to two years, said Bill Baden, a senior fire services officer with the group. A patent on their idea is pending.