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It was 20 below and I went out and bought some chest waders and had my daughter bury me in the snow."
Bob Duncan, Alaska Airlines pilot and part-time inventor from Sequim, Wash. believes that a good theory needs a practical test. So four years ago, after what he can only describe as a revelation, he set about testing the theory that his own breath could provide enough heat to savehim from hypothermia.
Duncan's first test was crude, but effective. Living in Anchorage at the time, he instructed his daughter to bury him waist-deep in the snow. Looking silly and acting crazy is a risk that many inventors must take.
"I took a hose and ran it down one leg and waited about seven minutes because I wanted to get a little chilly to see what would happen," he explained.
Once the chill set in, he began exhaling into the hose to see what effect it would have on his leg in the sealed hip boot.
"In 20 minutes my leg is toasty warm," he recalled, "and the rest of me is dying." Thrilled with the discovery and freezing cold, mostly, he dug out and ran inside to tell his wife Mary Jane.
"My wife - who actually has great patience with me - was on the phone saying, 'You're not going to believe what my husband is doing now... " he recalled."I pulled down my chest waders and long underwear and grabbed her hand. I put it right there," he said, pointing to one of his thigh muscles. "It was icecold... like duh.
"She was still just talking away ... Then I put it on my other leg, and it was warmer than it is right now. And she couldn't talk anymore. It was that shocking.
"That's when we realized there was something to this," he said.
The concept is easy to understand. The idea is to recapture the heat of human respiration by funneling one's breath back into a survival suit and slowing the body's chilling process. The breath we inhale is typically warmed by our lungs to about 88 degrees F before we exhale it. While we occasionally use our breath to warm our hands when they're chilly, most of the time we simply expel it - and the heat it carries-into the atmosphere.
Dumping heat in this fashion serves a healthy purpose when we're overheated. It cools our bodies from the inside out. But when we're struggling to stay
warm, breathing hard and immersed in cold water, the more we breathe, the more heat we lose from the center of our body. And once that heat vents into the atmosphere, there is no way to get it back.
Cold-water immersion is no joke. Losing heat from our body core through respiration and from our skin by direct contact with cold water, our body begins to cool.
Then our core temperature drops below 95 degrees, we begin to shiver. When it drops below 90 degrees, we no longer have energy to shiver and we slip into a very critical condition of hypothermia. At this point, without careful handling and hospital treatment, there's a strong chance we'll never recover.
How fast we cool as individuals and how we respond to mild or moderate cooling is highly variable, but there's no doubt that slowing the cooling process is critical to survival when abandoning any vessel. Cold-water victims often die before they technically become hypo- thermic.
Once they lose the ability to swim and keep their airway clear of water, they Can drown in a single breath
before they technically become hypothermic. Once they lose the ability to swim and keep their airway clear of water, they Can drown in a single breath.
Duncan's first invention was a pillow to help passengers sleep in a cramped coach seat on a com- mercial airliner. But flying back and forth to Dutch Harbor, he became aware of a much more serious need from commercial fishermen working the Bering Sea.
"You hear stories in Dutch Harbor that you don't hear anyplace else ... about the fatalities," Duncan said. "I think that kept me going."
From the crude success of his first chest-wader experiment, Duncan continued his low- tech develop-ment program, searching for a way to incorporate his device into an existing survival suit, or perhaps even build one himself.
At one point he spent 40 hours working tediously with a seaming iron to complete his homemade version. "It looked like something from outer space," he recalled with a chuckle. "And it leaked like a son of a gun.
"That was test Number 5 ... the shortest test. I walked into the water and I got right out. I went home and I ripped the thing up ... I was so mad at myself." It wasn't his only setback. "I had a huge failure down in Kodiak," he recalled. "I had a Coast Guard diver right next to me. It was going to be a grudge match ... and I had swiss cheese for a survival suit.
"They thought I was out to lunch anyway, and this kind of confirmed it. Water was coming in, I had to get out after an hour and a half. I was just freezing..." Fortunately Duncan found a small pocket of hope in the Kodiak failure.
"Air went down to my heel and worked its way up to my knee and stopped there... and that knee was toasty warm! And that was the only reason I kept going."
Where there was warmth, there was hope, and Duncan continued working on his air-delivery system, trying desperately to come up with a way to disperse his warm breath evenly throughout the suit.
Eventually he developed a liner made from material similar to a plastic scrubbing pad. Directed through a· diver's mouthpiece and flexible hose, his breath entered the liner at the small of his back and dispersed upward and 1aterally throughout the body of the suit. In addition to providing dispersion, the mat-like surface of the liner shielded him from the cold shell of the suit itself and protected him from contact cooling. Inflated by his warm breath, the suit also rode higher than normal, lifting his body higher in the water, which provided more "freeboard" and less submerged surface.
Duncan's breakthrough test came in Valdez: when he entered 48-degree water, the suit didn't leak and the re-circulating system appeared to be' working.
"I'd made it three hours and I was okay," Duncan recalled, "so I figured I'd go until it [body temperature] starts dropping off. I made it eight hours."
It wasn't perfect, but it wasn't bad. "I had a few cold spots that weren't protected below the water- line," he recalled, "but I could have kept going and I came out warmer than I went in."
Duncan was "jazzed" and figured he was a sure pick for some grant money that was available. So he taught himself how to write a proposal, cranked out a 20-pager and figured he was "a shoe-in."
He still keeps the response.
"In fact, it's been one of the most motivating things that I've had ... It said, 'You know, it's very good that you have these ideas, but here's a couple books that will show that you don't have quite enough education in this depart- ment... but please continue on with your ventures.'
"God, I was mad. I was thinking, 'Someday you're going to regret that.'''
Duncan knew he was onto something but as he put it, "I was convincing zero people... I had to take it to the next level."
He'd conducted the Valdez test in the summer of 2003. He knew a summer test wasn't enough to turn any heads so he went to Seward that winter. For a control test he first brought a "top of the line" name-brand survival suit to the Seward site and hopped into 38-degree water with the outside air temperature at 15 degrees.
Measuring his temperature with an ear therm- ometer, normal was 97 degrees. When his ear temp dropped to 94 an hour later, he ended the test.
"You're not dying at 94, you're just shivering," he explained, "but if we hit 94, we stop the testing." It didn't take long.
The next week he returned to Seward with the same suit fitted with his liner and re-circulating apparatus.
"With I5-knots of wind out of the north, I went five hours," he recalled. "Now we did not come out warmer than we went in. I went in at 97 and came out at 96.5. But the only reason I got out was that it was getting dark and we also had a sea lion come up and I didn't want him to get friendly with me."
As Duncan put it, "We thought we hit a home run there, and I was flying all the way home to Anchorage."
Despite Duncan's solid hit, it was still a long way around the bases. His product seemed to work, but nobody was jumping to manufacture it.
So he kept testing and demonstrating his story. Last year he took his suit to Sitka and spent a full 12 hours in the water, observed by Jerry Dzugan, director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association.
He took his results to Washington D.C. and got a heartening response from Congressional staffers. He raised the eyebrows of government procurement officials, but they wanted a finished suit, not a one-off prototype.
Convinced of his product, but stymied by his inability to bring his dream to fruition, Duncan said, "I learned to be patient."
He approached several manu- facturers of suits currently available on the market, but they were not interested in retooling or investing in further development of his design.
Finally he hooked up with Whites
Manufacturing of Saanichton, B.C. Already successful in the dive-gear market, Whites was developing its own "dry" version of a survival suit at the request of the Canadian Coast Guard. Duncan convinced them to give what he now calls his "Breathe 4 Life" liner system a shot, and they agreed to help him develop a more sophisticated prototype.
The first test in Victoria was a success for both products. The subject in Whites' suit, without
the breath assist, lasted 10 hours. A similar suit with Duncan's modifications lasted 18 hours.
As for core temperature-which was measured by a temperature transponding "pill" that Duncan swallowed -"We came out warmer than we went in," he said.
The management at Whites was convinced of the potential and Duncan set another goal to last more than 24 hours. And he invited Seattle TV celebrity John Curley of KING 5's "Evening Magazine" to join him in the water at John Wayne "'farina on Sequim Bay.
Captured on video and surrounded by press this time, it was not a test that Duncan wanted to fail.
Looking like an astronaut, Duncan was confident from the start, In fact he drove himself fully suited to the event in his pickup truck to demonstrate the mobility of his suit.
Curley drew a lot of attention, too, hopping into an ill-fitting jumbo suit and splashing around to see what it was like to be in distress.
Looking at Duncan, Curley quipped, "I feel like I'm in a Yugo."
Though he often plays the clown on TV, he'd studied up on hypothermia and he was doing more than just fooling around. After an hour in the 49-degree water, it became more difficult for him to keep his game face.
"I'm uncomfortable," he said. "My whole body's wet. My fingertips are still okay, but I'm colder. I've got a little tremble going."
A half-hour later, Curley told the staff monitoring his
condition, "Yeah, I'm very cold. My suit has a lot of water in it now." He pulled out, shook Duncan's hand and headed for the shower.
Duncan continued through the afternoon and the entire night, clamming up and hunkering down behind his goggles and breathing into the mouthpiece to retain his heat. (Chit-chatting actually lowered his body temperature.) Remarkably, he never put on his gloves. He'd fitted the suit with a muff-like pouch on the belly where the air from the suit exhausted at 60 degrees.
Twenty-three hours into the test, Duncan was still doing fine with a core temperature of 37.15 degrees C measured by the temperature "pill."
That's 98.87 degrees F. (Normal rectal temperature is 37.5 C or 99.5 F.)
The air temperature had been as low as 38 degrees that morning and the water was still holding at 49 degrees.
Duncan admitted that he had to work a bit at breathing to keep the suit warm at 4 a.m., but he still figured correctly that "It was colder for the people on the dock."
At 1: 15 p.m. on Sunday, nearly 25 hours after he went in the water, Duncan climbed up a ladder to the dock, teed up a plastic golf ball and pasted it into the breakwater. He still had his suit on.
And everyone knew he was onto something big.
Survival suit test at Sequim Saturday
(Sequim) - A Sequim man will float in the chilly waters of Sequim Bay for 25 hours this weekend, testing the reliability of a breakthrough survival suit -- and attempt to set a world record. http://www.konp.com/local/1282
ALASKA FISHERMAN'S JOURNAL - June, 2005
SEQUIM - The water temperature at John Wayne Marina measured a chilly 48 degrees Saturday morning.
That's too cold for swimming, or even a quick dip.
But when Sequim resident Bob Duncan jumped into the marina's water around noon, he planned to spend the next 25 hours there - and be plenty comfortable doing it.
He'll have help, of course. Duncan has spent the past four years trying to develop a coldwater survival suit that will
allow people to stay warm for hours or even days if they're stranded in cold ocean waters.
The result is the Latitude 98 suit, and he's been traveling from place to place in the Pacific Northwest and. using himself as a guinea pig in demonstrations.
The suit is based on a simple idea - recycling the heat from a person's exhaled breath to keep the creeping chill of the surrounding water at bay.
'FOOLING YOUR BODY'
"It's almost like you're fooling
your body" Duncan said Sat urday while floating in shallow water by the marina's boat slips.
The suit is waterproof and has a flotation device that helps the wearer remain face up in the water.
A breathing tube funnels exhaled air into bladders in the suit's back side, which is where the body would come in contact with the water.
There's also an exhaust vent into a handwarming tube on the suit's chest.
A person wearing the suit would have to refresh the air in the bladders every 10 to 15 minutes to keep the level of warmth constant.
Conventional survival suits - often called "Gumby suits" because people wearing them look like the animated character - rely on insulation and conserving body heat, Duncan said, and can only be counted on for a short period of time.
The Coast Guard estimates that a person in a Gumby suit retains "functional conscious-ness" for no more than 2 1/2hours, which can be not long enough for rescuers to arrive.
In tests so far, Duncan has spent much longer than that in waters in Alaska and British Columbia. His longest stretch until Saturday was 18 hours in a test near Victoria.
If Duncan lasts 25 hours in Sequim Bay - until around 1 p.m. today - he said he'll lay claim to the world record for coldwater survival.
Duncan, a Sequim resident and native, has been a commercial pilot for 29 years and currently flies for Alaska Airlines. Though he's spent a lot of time around Northwest waters, he was never an expert on surviving in them.
"1 never touched or saw a survival suit before I had the idea for this," he said.
He credits reading news accounts of shipwrecks for injecting the subject into the back of his mind. since he was struck by how difficult it was for crewmen to survive once they were in the water.
But he still doesn't under stand why, exactly, the idea for recycling the body's hot air popped into his head in December 2001 while he was vacationing with his family in Hawaii.
"I was awakened in the middle of the night [with the idea]," he said.
"I felt God spoke to me and gave me this idea."
After returning from vacation) - they were living in Anchorage at the time - Duncan put together a rough experiment to see if the idea was worth anything.
He donned chest waders and had his daughter cover most of his body with snow in 20-belowzero temperatures. He nm a hose from his mouth down one leg inside the waders.
After 80 minutes, that leg was fine - but the rest of him was freezing.
"1 knew there was something there," Duncan said.
Making the idea really proved more difficult. His first attempt was a modified diving dry suit that wasn't so dry - it leaked "miserably." he said.
He applied for a government grant to fund research and development, and was instead handed reams of material detailing why his idea wouldn't work.
While the Coast Guard does not endorse specific products, the agency is always checking out new equipment and designs - because any- thing that can keep people alive in the water for even a few more hours greatly improves the chances of rescue, the Coast Guard said.
Duncan was angling for more than mere survival in his demonstration Saturday.
He staged a bit of theater, roping a television reporter into wearing a Gumby suit to showcase the differences between the two.
Duncan also predicted that the only ill effect from spend- ing 25 hours in the water would be a slight sleepiness, "When I get out of this suit tomorrow," Duncan said Satur day, "I plan to hit some golf balls."
The prototype Duncan is floating in today was put together by Whites Manufacturing Ltd, in Victoria, which makes wet suits and dry suits.
The goal now, Duncan said, is to persuade the Coast Guard that his invention works.
Coast Guard Inspection: Two members of the Port Angeles Coast Guard Station's rescue team attended Saturday's demon-stration to inspect the suit and see it at work
Sequim Gazette - February 11. 2009
PENINSULA DAILY NEWS - April 17. 2005
Feb 26, 2014 05:08 PM
BY JOHN GORMLEY
Newly designed immersion suit, aided by warm breath, can protect for 24 hours
“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.
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°.
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.
I PLUNGED INTO FREEZING WATER—AND SURVIVED TO TELL THE TALE
A NEW IMMERSION SUIT CLAIMS IT CAN KEEP YOU ALIVE UP TO 24 HOURS IN FREEZING WATER. SO WE TESTED IT.
By Berne Broudy Posted December 22, 2015
When a ship sinks at sea and you’re thrown into the water, hypothermia sets in quickly, so every second counts. An immersion suit is designed to buy you time. Constructed like a surfer’s wetsuit, it keeps you warm for up to three to six hours, until help (hopefully) arrives. Smart sailors and fishermen carry them and, when on a boat, so should you: Even a plunge into 50-degree water will induce hypothermia within 60 minutes.
But what if help is a long time coming? The Stearns I950 ThermaShield 24+ bills itself as the most advanced immersion suit made, one that can extend that crucial in-the-water survival window up to 24 hours, and keep you alive even in freezing (32°F) water. How good is this suit? I couldn’t leap from an arctic charter to test its
outermost limits at sea. But I was able to try it in northern Vermont, in early November, with snow falling, and the water in Lake Champlain hovering at that 50-degree mark. So here’s what I did.
I went down to the dock, lifted the suit’s neoprene one-piece over my body, and threw myself in. I immediately bobbed to the surface and floated. The suit has enough buoyancy to support 330 pounds. (Let’s just say I’m about a third of that.) A large air pillow on the rear of the suit naturally oriented me to float on my back. Breathing into a valve on the right shoulder fills the air pillow. Breathing into a valve on the left shoulder circulates warm breath around the core (to protect vital organs), and then arms, hands, feet, and legs.
Stearns I950 ThermaShield 24+ Immersion Suit
Stearns I950 Thermashield 24+ Immersion Suit, $1500
In addition to staving off hypothermia, the suit is fire-resistant. Thankfully, our reporter didn’t have to dodge any flaming wreckage.
The hood blocks sound, so I couldn’t do much but look at the clouds. More tube breathing made me warmer and more buoyant. My fingers got wet because I didn’t cinch the suit’s wrist straps. Those fingers got cold fast. But the suit’s designers foresaw this problem: Jam your hands in the hand warmer sewn onto the stomach, then back into the gloves, and they stay as warm as need be.
I floated like that for an hour, just long enough to (theoretically) get hypothermia. But I was fine. I had, however, floated several yards from shore, and swimming back was awkward: I managed a floundering backstroke back to the dock. While I am sure I could have floated all night, I’m glad I didn’t have to.
This article was originally published in the January/February 2016 issue of Popular Science.