Safety towels

===Damp Towels and Duvetyn===

I’ve been seeing a <em>lot</em> of confusion about safety towels. So, let’s get complete about this once and for all.
First, A spotter has three major responsibilities: 1) to the audience, keeping them away from the performer, and keeping the fire away from them; 2) to the venue, preventing it from burning to the ground usually; 3) to the performer, both to locate, inform and extinguish stray fires on their person, but also to attend them for showmanship purposes like extinguishing tools when their time onstage is over (for choreography usually).

As far as use of the safety towel goes, this breaks down into two general tasks: A) put out the unplanned occurrences of stray fire from lost wicks or loss of control; and B) intentional, planned extinguishing of flames as the fire tools exit the stage. Those performers who tend to perform unchoreographed shows, will usually only need the emergency extinguishing (unless they meet a grumpy fire marshall). Those performers doing theater, or any kind of timed performance will usually need only intentional extinguishing.

Okay, so, emergency extinguishing should be the rarest occurrence. But when it does happen, there’s sometimes a first aid aspect to consider. In these cases, damp towels are the preferred safety towels. Not only are they clingy, and readily put out body fires, but they perform the first step of first aid at the earliest possible moment: cooling the burn. There are several factors, however, which make damp towels less than desirable. First, if the temperature is below zero, the towel can freeze. A frozen towel doesn’t cling, won’t wrap around things easily, and will aggravate any burn it touches. Second, is that damp towels, if not managed properly, can become moldy. A moldy towel is not good first aid, is unpleasant to hold, and generally a bit of a health hazard.

For these reasons, plus the convenience of being able to ‘toss it in the kit and forget it’, NAFAA also recommends flame treated, or inherently flame resistant dry towels. The two most common forms being Duvetyn and Welding Cloth. These towels do not require water to resist the flames, can {should} be used dry, and can be stored immediately without special attention. The biggest down side is that dry towels do not provide immediate first aid. Also, because they’re not attended as frequently as damp towels, they can pick up a lot of soot and dirt during use which is bad in open wounds, and they can slowly gather a lot of residual fuel making them safety hazards if not properly aired out or periodically ignited.

It’s worth mentioning that there are many grades and forms of duvetyn. 8 oz fabric (how much one square yard weighs) is naturally a bit thinner than 12oz, which is pretty common. 16 oz (sometimes called Commando Cloth) is about as thick as you can get, or would want it to be. Over 16oz, and the fabric begins to get more stiff and may resist making a good seal. Thick wool “fire blankets” have this property. They are intended to keep fire off you, not to put you out.

This brings us to intentional extinguishing.

First, there’s a rumor that damp towels can produce steam that will harm the spotter. I mention this here because only those people who regularly extinguish will ever see the truth of this; because it’s usually not true. For occasional, emergency extinguishing, no damp towel user will ever see steam. In order for steam to form, the surface temperature of the towel has to be over 212 (f)/100 (c) degrees. For this to happen, you must rapidly (under a minute) extinguish several large fire tools (swords, etc). It took about 14 for this to work on me. So I switched to Duvetyne, which over-heated and ignited after about 10 (burning my hands in the process). So I went back to damp towels.

Most intentional extinguishing involves putting out 1-5 tools as people get off a stage in a theatrical performance. For these purposes, either a wet or dry towel is going to perform admirably. For very large numbers of tools coming off at once, it’s probably worth noting that 1 spotter can only watch so many performers at a time, and extra spotters will not only make things safer, but will provide extra people/stations for tool extinguishing. However, stuff happens, and space limitations sometimes prevail.

For rapid, excessive, large fire extinguishing, your best bet is probably a welder’s cloth. Get something double layered, or just good and thick, but not so much that it interferes with forming a seal. Get into a pattern of ‘extinguish and turn”, keeping the towel turning around so that the same side isn’t used twice in a row. This allows the towel to air out, cool down a bit on that side, and lets the spotter see if the towel has caught on fire. Have a damp towel backup, just in case.

Otherwise, just keep in mind that your safety towel is the first line defense in most situations. You need something big enough to cover the drapes, or that silly-big fire tool, small enough that it’s not in the way all the time, and in good condition. Moldy damp towels, duvetyns with holes, and 1/2″ thick welding blankets are not acceptable for the jobs that spotters are required to do. Clean bath towels soaked in water, then thoroughly wrung out make the best <em>damp</em> towels. Duvetyn with no holes and without excessive fuel, soot, or dirt make good <em>dry</em> towels. (Once made wet, duvetyne is loses it’s fire-resistant treatment) Thin welding blankets, without aluminum coverings, and flexible enough to get around the small tools, tend to be the best dry towels.

There are many types of items that can be used for spotter’s towels here are some of the most popular choices.

  • Damp towel (not “wet”)- can be a bath towel, scrap of cloth, even a sarong. No wrong answer for materials because the water protects the towel. For a long time this was the preferred because it was safe, effective and provided instant first aid in the case of burns (when it’s needed most). The downside was for the weekly raver who would perform, then pack the show in the car. Occasionally the towel would get left in the car and develop a mold farm.
  • Duvetine – A dense cotton felt fabric used in the movie industry as blackout cloth. Because of proximity to hot lights it’s usually flame treated. Unlike the damp towel, you can toss it in your kit and forget it, so it won out on convenience. It also doesn’t provide that quick first aid. Also, it must be retreated if it gets wet.
  • Fiberglass – A fabric made of long fiber fiberglass (unlike the short fiber insulation). Has all the up sides of duvy, but does not change when wet. However constant flexing can snap the fibers, weakening the cloth and irritating the skin of people who use them. Used extensively in UK kitchens as an emergency cloth, not intended for spotter purposes.
  • Pre-ox, basosil, silica, other high heat cloth – any cloth with degredation temperatures above 800 can be used like a duvy for safety purposes, can be dampened to increase cling and provide instant first aid if needed, and often outlast duvy and fiberglass by at least a 5:1 margin. Used dry can pack and forget, however can be used damp or washed without losing flame resistance.IMHO- if you have the facilities to wash towels (like at a club, or hotel) then the damp towel is king. Drop them in the corner and let the staff handle them. Failing that, the duvy is usually the cheapest option for pack and forget, however, the high-heat cloths tend to last longer and are ultimately cheaper in the long run. Wool fire blankets, fiberglass emergency cloths, and other items promoted for non fire performance use should be carefully evaluated on a case by case basis.-Tedward

 

The North American Fire Arts Association