Seattle-based True North Gear found success in the fire resistant apparel business via a circuitous route. Two decades ago, founder Alyx Fier began the company with an innovative design for backpacks used by hikers, said True North President Steve Misiano.
“It all started with a hiking trip to Yosemite National Park,” he said. “Alyx didn’t like day packs because they made his back hot. He didn’t like fanny packs because they bounced around so much.”
Fier worked as a carpenter, Misiano said. To fix his hiking problem, Fier invented a system by which he could clip a fanny pack onto the special suspenders he used at work to hold his tools.
“It not only kept the pack from bouncing around but it shifted the weight to his shoulders,” Misiano said. “He filed for a patent and from that simple concept everything else followed.”
Today, True North Gear is an ISO 9001 registered company whose products are distributed worldwide. In addition to backpacks and bags for firefighters and search and rescue personnel, True North products include a broad range of fire resistant clothing manufactured under the DragonWear™ label.
“Our heritage has been the outdoors – the mountains and other harsh environments,” Misiano said. “We take the best of what you would use in an outdoor adventure and make it flame resistant and functional for firefighters, meeting the relevant safety and durability standards.”
Aside from municipal and wildland firefighters, True North sells FR clothing throughout industry. The client list includes names such as ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips and PG&E, Misiano said.
However, during its first decade, True North concentrated on selling its backpacks through specialized outdoor sports retailers such as Eastern Mountain Sports and REI. Then emergency responders discovered True North, Misiano said.
“Wildland firefighters and search and rescue people using our packs in their personal lives realized how comfortable they were and asked if we could make work-related backpacks,” he said.
Sales of backpacks and bags designed for firefighters soon eclipsed recreational gear. That led the company into flame resistant work clothing such as wildland fire fighting apparel, and FR station wear for municipal and industrial use.
“We really focus on the premium fabrics,” Misiano said. “Instead of FR cotton, we use inherent flame resistant blends that will wick away more moisture in hot environments and dry quickly to help you stay warm in a cold environment without developing hypothermia.”
True North has played a significant role in the development of new FR fabrics as it moved into the fire fighting market.
“One of the partnerships we formed was with Polartec®, the originators of synthetic fleece,” Misiano said. “Together, under our DragonWear product line, we developed a wind resistant fleece blend using Nomex.” The companies also developed a laminated soft shell fabric that combines an FR membrane with durable water repellent knit.
Another area that brought the two companies together was arc flash protection.
“We’ve developed some proprietary fabrics, unique blends,” Misiano said. “We wanted to pass NFPA 2112 and still give people the comforts of wicking performance and stretch.”
NFPA 2112 is the standard for flameresistant garments used to protect industrial personnel from flash fire. On tap for True North in the first quarter of 2014 is the introduction of a new dual compliant fabric certified as meeting both NFPA 2112 and NFPA 70E electric arc flash standard.
It is also certified as meeting NPFA 1975 regarding flame resistant station wear and NFPA 1977 for wildland fire fighting, Misiano said.
“We will be introducing our first flame resistant station wear shirts and pants,” he said. “You can wear it around the station, but if called out for a wildfire, you don’t have to change clothing.”
While True North Gear stands on the cutting edge in FR fabric technology, Misiano said traditional marketing has been the best selling tool. One demonstration device that never fails to impress is DuPont’s Thermo-Man. A life-size mannequin, Thermo-Man uses information from 122 thermal sensors to predict level, extent and location of potential burns when flame resistant garments are exposed to short bursts of intense flame.
“Because Nomex fleece is one of our most popular products, DuPont has brought people to its lab in Richmond, VA, to witness demonstrations with Thermo-Man wearing our garments and review the results,” Misiano said.
If that and all else fails to convince a potential customer, the single best sales tool is to let them wear the product, Misiano said.
“There has been a misconception that flame resistant clothing is stiff, uncomfortable and not breathable,” he said. “I give away a ton of FR T-shirts to workers at summer training events so people can experience the comfort and performance.”
True North also offers wear trials to convince those new to its products.
“For example, we have been a firm believer that when somebody wears our fleece, feels how warm it is and how light it is compared to a big heavy cotton duck jacket, the product pretty much sells itself,” Misiano said.