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Newly designed immersion suit, aided by warm breath, can protect for 24 hours

Feb 26, 2014 05:08 PM
The Stearns I950 Thermashield 24+ Immersion Suit undergoes a trial in Puget Sound. The developers say the new design provides more than an entire day of protection.

Courtesy Stearns

The Stearns I950 Thermashield 24+ Immersion Suit undergoes a trial in Puget Sound. The developers say the new design provides more than an entire day of protection.

A newly developed immersion suit dramatically increases survival time by capturing the warm breath of the wearer and recirculating it.

Under current standards, a suit must protect the wearer for at least six hours to win certification from the U.S. Coast Guard. The recently-introduced Stearns product has been shown in tests to protect wearers for over 24 hours, according to the company.

The tests were conducted in September 2013 at Simon Fraser University near Vancouver, British Columbia, using members of the Canadian Coast Guard as test subjects. They wore the suits in 32° water with air temperatures 10 inches above the water of 32°.

“At 24 hours and 15 minutes, we ended the testing. We felt there wasn’t a need for additional data,” said Darin Webb, global senior director, product development with Stearns. “Several of the people were more than willing to stay in the suit. They were holding up quite nicely. Basically they had no cold water issues to deal with.”

Stearns is calling the suit the I950 Thermashield 24+ Immersion Suit. The 24+ in the name expresses the survival time achieved in the testing. The suits are expected to go on sale in March with a suggested retail price of about $1,500.

The suit is the brainchild of Bob Duncan, an Alaska Airlines pilot and inventor. He brought the idea of a breath-warmed immersion suit to Stearns about three years ago. Duncan created a liner that circulates the wearer’s warm breath through the immersion suit. Stearns then took two and a half years figuring out how to convert that core concept into a marketable product. They came up with refinements including treaded boots, removable gloves and a breath-heated cuff at the waist for re-warming hands.

The key element of the design is the crush-proof fibrous liner that extends along the back of the suit, down the arms to the wrist cuffs and down the legs into the boots. When the wearer breathes into a mouthpiece, the warm air is propagated by the liner, providing warmth to the wearer’s core and extremities.

“It’s like sitting on a breath-powered radiator,” Webb said. “It is a unique product. It opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. Our whole goal is to keep people alive longer.”

But the suits do more than just increase the chances of survival. During long exposure to cold water, the body conserves its heat in the body’s core, leaving the extremities susceptible to damage from frostbite. By circulating warmth to the feet and the hands, the suit should also reduce injuries as well as death.

Typically, mariners don their immersion suits only when it has become clear that they will have to abandon ship. Once they put on their suits, they are pretty much committed to going over the side, since the traditional “Gumby” suit does not give the wearer the mobility to move around the vessel or the manual dexterity to perform vessel operations.

By incorporating a treaded boot into its design, Stearns has created a suit that allows the wearer to move more steadily about the vessel.

“This is a real boot integrated into the systems,” Webb said.

And by incorporating gloves along with the hand-warming cuff, the Stearns design allows wearers to remove the gloves and to use their bare hands to operate controls and perform manual tasks, knowing that the cuff can be used to re-warm the hands. The cuff has a valve that allows warm air to enter.

“That’s something you’re not going to be able to do in any other suit,” Tyler Winthers, Stearns’ global category manager, flotation, said of the cuffs.

These design elements mean a mariner can put on the suit before the order to abandon ship is issued. Consequently, the suit can be put on in a more controlled atmosphere, increasing the chance that it will be donned carefully in a way that ensures its integrity and proper performance. And this design may give the crew a bit more time to get the emergency under control.

“It’s obviously a revolutionary immersion suit,” said Winthers. By being more “user friendly,” the suit allows the crew to “address the emergency, not just flee from it.”

In the long run, the lifesaving impact of the Stearns suits may depend as much on economics as on their design. For suits to save lives, a vessel operator must decide it makes economic sense to buy them for its crews. As Capt. Anthony Palmiotti, an associate professor at SUNY Maritime College, put it, “Ship operators love safety, but they live on cost.”

At about $1,500, a Stearns Thermashield 24+ would cost two, three or even four times as much as other U.S. Coast Guard-approved immersion suits.

“Anything that helps someone in the water fend off hypothermia is a good idea; help might not always be quick. The ability to walk and maybe even work in a suit is great,” Palmiotti said. “Unfortunately all this comes at a price. It will be interesting to see how successful it is commercially.”

Stearns has been in the business of making survival gear for 60 years, and it believes it will find a substantial market for the innovative suits. Production of the suits, which are being made in Cambodia, is ramping up in anticipation of the March launch. The response from potential customers has been encouraging.

“There has been a lot of interest around the suit,” Webb said.

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