Written by Loretta Haring
Office of Strategic Planning and Communication, Acquisition Directorate
Boat crewmembers throughout the Coast Guard will be safer during the execution of their missions because of a Coast Guard Research and Development Center project evaluating personal protective helmets.
Helmets are worn by boat crew members to provide head protection during hazardous conditions in various environments. Before the RDC’s evaluation of helmet wear, “we didn’t have anything that determined which standards should be used in selecting helmets,” said Chief Warrant Officer Steve Norquist from the Office of Boat Forces (CG-731) and a sponsor representative. “We wanted to better understand the levels of protection that helmets provide to our Coast Guard members in Boat Forces and we wanted to make sure our service members had the right tool to do their job as safely as possible. The center’s extensive research will benefit 16,000 Coast Guard boat crew members throughout the active duty, reserve and auxiliary ranks.”
The RDC’s recommendations informed CG-731’s new requirements and request for proposal to purchase up to 15,200 boat crew helmets. The RFP for the helmets was posted July 27, 2017, only six months after the analysis was delivered, and closed on Aug. 28, 2017. The next step is to conduct operational testing and evaluation of the helmet models submitted “to find the best and most comfortable for our dedicated service members,” Norquist said. “All of the options that we have to test are a great improvement over what we are using now.”
The project had three distinct phases:
- Document the hazards and forces that Coast Guard members experience during various boat operations
- Evaluate the level of protection provided by current Coast Guard helmets against those hazards
- Recommend mitigation strategies to cost-effectively achieve appropriate levels of protection
“Once we defined the scope of the project, we needed to collect a large amount of data for our background research,” said Project Manager Brian Dolph, with the New London, Connecticut-based RDC.
The Coast Guard Rescue and Survival Systems Manual details the service’s policy on use of head protection during operations. Depending on the circumstances, helmets may be required for boat crew members, scheduled mission and shore-side personnel, and scheduled passengers. Hazardous conditions requiring head protection include heavy weather, surf operations, involvement in ice rescue or helicopter operations, vessel pursuits, or Ports, Waterways and Coastal Security missions. Coast Guard personnel have been using a variety of different helmets or hard hats while executing their missions.
To help define the type of hazards to which boat crew members were exposed, the RDC analyzed mishaps from 2000 to 2014. Researchers looked at the injured member’s role, the activity at the time of the injury, whether head protection was required and worn, and the type and location of the head injury, Dolph said. The types of injuries incurred were identified as impact, laceration, concussion and/or neck strain/whiplash.
RDC staff member John McLeod supervised development of an online head protection survey to identify the strengths and weaknesses of different types of head protection and gather recommendations for improvements. Researchers were extremely surprised by the high response rate to the online survey; nearly 1,100 members across the Coast Guard responded.
“This project was another successful opportunity to incorporate ‘deck-plate’ level feedback from real users which helped the RDC develop more complete understanding of the issues impacting the field,” said Lt. Steven Hager, surface domain lead with the Research, Development, Test and Evaluation Program (CG-926).
RDC Human Factors Expert Dr. Anita Rothblum led the data analysis effort. Dolph explained that the amount of data they gathered sometimes seemed overwhelming because it all needed to be analyzed in order to be useful, but he pointed out such analysis is one of the major functions of the RDC, “to provide decision support. And solid data allows you to provide strong recommendations.”
The RDC leveraged the Boat Forces Advisory Council to have a candid discussion about the hazardous conditions for which helmets should be expected to provide protection and what requirements they thought helmets should meet. “These very senior-level experienced leaders gave us their ground truth of what operators faced and what they thought was needed.”
The research team also partnered with the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Physics Department to evaluate various head protection industry certifications standards, which was key to comparing those standards to the Coast Guard’s desired protection levels.
“It was amazing to see how quickly the Office of Boat Forces used these results to pursue the next generation of helmets,” Dolph said. “I feel a great sense of personal pride and job satisfaction knowing the research we conduct at the RDC has the opportunity to improve the abilities of crew members to conduct various missions more safely and efficiently. In this project, our team worked with many dedicated stakeholders to better understand head protection requirements and recommend specific improvements in support of Coast Guard Human Capital Strategy goals.”