ARLINGTON, Va. — “Fire in the hole!”

These four words can cause panic if the flames are invading a cockpit, a tank crew compartment, or billeting tent. Yet as the U.S. military increasingly depends on electronics, which require batteries or a combustible-fuel power source, the possibility of fire grows apace.

In an effort to speed new fireproof and flame-retardant materials for uniforms and personal gear into this hi-tech environment, the Defense Department is pulling all of its thermal test facilities under one roof at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass.

“As our systems become more sophisticated and energy usage on the battlefield increases, the individual soldier is subjected to a greater risk of exposure to flame and thermal threats,” Joel Carlson, a research chemist on Natick’s Materials Science Team at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., said in a Thursday e-mail to Stripes.

Construction officials plan to break ground for a $5.4 million joint-use thermal test facility in January 2005, with the opening of the state-of-the-art, 12,500 square-foot building slated for 2006, according to Natick officials.

Today the DOD’s thermal test facilities for clothing and material “are all over the place,” including facilities in North Carolina and Massachusetts, Carlson said Wednesday. “The point of [building the new center] is to bring it all under one roof.”

Not only is it more “cost-effective” to have all of the Soldier System Center’s fire-testing equipment in a single building; the collection will allow researchers to fire-test entire clothing ensembles, not just bits and pieces, Carlson said.

Some of the testing center’s planned highlights include the following:

• A Propane Fire Cell: For testing clothing’s thermal characteristics, and how well material protects against flame.

• Thermal oven: Provided by the Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility, which is also located at the Soldier Systems Center, the oven will allow researchers to measure how clothing transfers heat to the skin.

• Test manikins: A stationary manikin and a special “walking manikin,” each with 122 heat sensors, can test the effect of flash fires on clothing — and the body underneath.

• Propane fire pit: A 6-by-10 foot pit for testing tents and other individual equipment.

• Thermal radiation testing cell: This “simulated sun” will help researchers measure very precisely, layer by layer, how the sun’s ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared radiation affects uniforms, linings, and closures, so they can develop sun-protective coatings and applications.

• Carbon dioxide laser cell: Another evaluation tool for researchers who are analyzing uniform materials for their ability to protect against flame, laser and thermal radiation. The laser can be focused very precisely, with its intensity and duration easily controlled.

• Five laboratories: A materials preparation lab, flammability testing lab, combustion monitoring lab, materials analysis lab, and a thermal protection testing lab. These will be the places where researchers perform “bench tests” — tests that reveal very specific thermal properties and combustion byproducts (waste gases) offered by different clothing and materials.

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