What is a Fire Shelter?

Mary McMahon

A fire shelter is a device used by firefighting personnel to shelter in the event that they become trapped by a fire. Fire shelters are designed to provide firefighters with air which is safe to breathe while protecting them from the extreme heat of the fire. When used properly, a fire shelter can save a life. Fire shelters are a required part of the kit for wildland firefighters and firefighters responding to the scene of a wildfire.

Fire shelters may be used in the event of a firefighter becoming trapped by a fire.
Fire shelters may be used in the event of a firefighter becoming trapped by a fire.

Ideally, a fire shelter stays in its case and is never used. Shelters are used as a method of last resort when it becomes evident that entrapment is occurring and a firefighter needs to be able to shelter in place. Entrapment can occur for a wide range of reasons, many of which are unpredictable, and can include being cut off from other firefighters along the line, making it critical for everyone to carry a fire shelter, even though many shelters can accommodate two in an emergency.

Firefighters undergo training sessions where they learn how to use a fire shelter and practice getting into a shelter in adverse conditions. High winds are a common problem around a fire site which can make it difficult to get into a shelter, for example. Once in a shelter, the firefighter needs to stay put hugging the ground until the fire is past, rather than trying to move with the shelter.

The material used to make a fire shelter includes foil, to reflect radiant heat from the fire, along with silica and fiberglass which insulate the interior and protect the firefighter from convective heat. The fire shelter also keeps air cool enough to breathe safely, as many deaths on fire lines occur because people inhaled hot gases, not because they burned to death.

If a firefighter is carrying water, drinking it while in a fire shelter can be beneficial. However, applying water to the body or to clothing is a bad idea. This can create steam, which can make conditions inside the fire shelter unsafe, and wet clothing conducts heat more readily to the body than dry clothing does.

Numerous companies which make firefighting equipment produce fire shelters manufactured to government standards. It is important to inspect fire shelters and their cases to confirm that they are in working order, and to make sure that firefighters always know where their shelters are, and to verify that the shelters can be quickly deployed in an emergency. It may be necessary to shelter in a matter of seconds, and to be able to get a shelter ready while on the run, making practice when a fire is not present a very good idea so that using the shelter becomes automatic.

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