Many of the nearly 94,000 women firefighters in the United States are forced to use gear that doesn’t fit them properly, which puts them at higher risk of injury. A new project addresses the problem.
At the fire department serving the University of California’s Davis campus, nearly a quarter of the firefighters are wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) that doesn’t fit right.
That’s because those firefighters are women who are using PPE that was designed for men: jackets with too much room in the shoulders, gloves with fingers that are too short, pants with insufficient room in the hips and inseams that aren’t long enough.
‘The inseam, I would say, is usually the biggest issue,’ UC Davis firefighter Corrie Beall told television news reporters in August. ‘Especially if you’re going to be getting low, like dropping to the ground or something, because it doesn’t allow you to have that flexibility or dexterity.’
Beall is one of nearly 94,000 women firefighters in the United States – about 8% of the country’s fire service. Many of these women must make do with uniforms, boots, gloves and other gear designed for men’s bodies. It’s not just a comfort issue; ill-fitting gear puts women firefighters at higher risk of injury than men. It can ‘encumber my movement, my flexibility, my ability to evade hazards,’ Jennifer Taylor, director of the Center for Firefighter Injury Research and Safety Trends at Drexel University, told The Verge in February.
Addressing the problem isn’t as simple as shrinking men’s gear – consider the sizing of gloves, for example. ‘Women’s hands are not smaller versions of men’s hands; women have longer fingers and a narrower palm,’ observed the authors of a 2019 report published by the US Fire Administration. ‘When women are forced to wear oversized and ill-fitting gloves, it is a clear safety concern and becomes impossible for them to hold items securely.’
A new study by Florida State University (FSU), in partnership with the Fire Protection Research Foundation, aims to make progress toward fixing the problem. The goal is to provide a comprehensive look at the issue so that researchers and designers can create more functional, better-fitting equipment for women in the fire service.
The study, which is due to wrap up in late 2021, is led by Meredith McQuerry, an assistant professor at FSU with expertise in clothing comfort physiology. NFPA Journal recently spoke with McQuerry about the new research project, why it’s taken so long for women firefighters to get their own PPE, and more.
What exactly is meant by ‘clothing comfort physiology’?
In my work, I study how personal protective clothing and equipment impacts human performance. That’s really at the root of what I do. I have over a decade’s experience now working specifically with structural firefighter PPE and wildland firefighter PPE, as well as other types of functional apparel such as uniforms, jerseys and industrial work apparel. During my time at FSU, I’ve focused on studying different ways we can change the design of turnout gear so that it’s less cumbersome on the body, easier to move in, and doesn’t cause the wearer to build up heat as quickly.
What past research is out there on female firefighter PPE?
Before leaving my alma mater, North Carolina State University, my colleague and co-principal investigator on this project, Dr Cassandra Kwon, and I talked about how no one thinks about female firefighters, no one considers them in the type of research we do. We started digging and found some focus-group studies where they talked to 20 or 30 female firefighters who said their gear doesn’t fit them – it’s restrictive in the bust, they have to size up so it fits the hips, but then it’s way too large in the waist. We realized there’s a huge need for research in this area. Anthropometrics may tell us about the size of females in the general population, but it doesn’t tell us about females in the fire service specifically.
About a year and a half ago, we published a review article on the workplace challenges of female firefighters in relation to personal protective clothing and equipment. That really became the sounding board for our grant proposal for the new project.
Do we know roughly how many female firefighters experience issues with ill-fitting gear?
In some of the research that’s been done, about 80% of female firefighters reported experiencing issues with ill-fitting personal protective equipment. That is four times greater than the rate at which male firefighters self-report fit issues. So they are certainly experiencing these issues at a much higher rate than their male counterparts. We’re not saying male firefighters don’t experience fit issues, but for female firefighters it’s at a much greater rate and it’s in different areas.
Is it dangerous for female firefighters to use gear that doesn’t fit?
Definitely. Female firefighters have a 33% higher risk of injury compared to their male counterparts, and ill-fitting PPE is certainly playing a role in that greater risk of injury and even risk of fatality. They’re not able to move as easily or as quickly as they need to. That puts them at greater risk.
Are there PPE options currently marketed toward women?
Since the 1990s, I would say, there have been female-marketed garments, but it’s mostly been a simple downscaling of male patterns. It may be the same design, which doesn’t take into account female proportions and body-shape differences. I recently published a study where we body-scanned six female firefighters and 10 male firefighters from our local department. We could see very obvious proportional, anthropometric differences, especially in the waist-to-hip ratio.
How is the current study being conducted?
We’re currently collecting data via a questionnaire – we’re trying to hear from as many female structural and wildland firefighters as we can from across the United States. We have over 1,800 responses, so we’ve really cast a wide net. We’re collecting data on the current sizing of their gear, and their perceptions of comfort, mobility and fit. We’re also asking them what modifications, if any, they currently make to their gear and what impact that has. Later, we’ll be doing regional focus groups and three-dimensional body scanning at locations across the country.
Why do you think this issue still hasn’t been addressed?
When you’re a female coming into a male-dominated career, I can only imagine the last thing you want to do is complain about your gear. Plus, they’re our heroes, right? They’re not ones to complain. So a lot of the time they just make do and move forward like firefighters do.
What’s your hope for the future?
First of all, I’m very happy about this project – it finally gives female firefighters a voice and to feel like they can express their concerns to us in an anonymous questionnaire. We have a lot of passionate female firefighters who are reaching out to us and letting us know they’ve faced these challenges for 30 or 40 years, in some cases. Our long-term goal is to take the sizing system we develop from this project and create gear with that system and put it into real-use conditions. We want to be able to then measure the comfort, mobility and ease of movement associated with that gear, and create products to get into the hands of female firefighters so that their injury risk is reduced.
For more information, go to www.nfpa.org
This article appears in the Spring 2021 edition of the NFPA Journal.