Florida research proves male and female firefighters need different turnout gear
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A Florida researcher has now proved in a study what CTIF has been stating for many years: Women´s fire gear may need to be altered to suit their bodies. "PPE is a very important part of occupational safety. It is not a gender equality ´thing´ to provide everybody with correctly fitting fire gear, it is a basic safety issue", says Mira Leinonen, chair of the CTIF Commission for Women in Fire & Rescue Services.
Photo above: Meredith McQuerry, an assistant professor in the Jim Moran College of Entrepreneurship. Her research investigated the different problems male and female firefighters have with flexibility and range of motion in their protective equipment. Photo by FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY NEWS THE OFFICIAL NEWS SOURCE OF FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY.
New research from Florida State University investigates differences in mobility for male and female firefighters while wearing the gear that is essential for protection from the intense heat of fires. The study is available in the January print edition of the journal Applied Ergonomics .
The Florida University News writes about Meredith MCqueery´s research project in an article published on their website January 20th:
"When female firefighters put on the protective suits they need for their work, they’re often using gear that has been designed for a male body. Because of that mismatch, the suits don’t fit as well as they should, and their mobility is impaired."
This means that "firefighters working in gear that restricts their movement must work harder to move around in a stressful and physically demanding environment, which puts them at greater risk of overexertion and heart attacks, the leading cause of on-duty deaths", according to the article.
Female firefighters have long argued that men´s turnout gear don´t always fit them well, or not even always serving their intended purpose - and how they serve on different body types. However, as many women firefighters have experienced, standard protective gear don´t always serve as well on their bodies as on mens´.
Fleur Lombard (1974 -1996) was born in Derbyshire, UK. She was the first female firefighter to die on duty in peacetime Britain, and one of only eight women among Avon’s 700 firefighters.
Fleur Lombard perished almost instantly in a flashover during a fire she was called out to. The cause of death was determined to be caused by a faulty breathing apparatus:
"However; it was also determined that the temperature underneath her clothing had been 400 - 600 degrees Celsius at one point, leading investigators to question how well the turnout gear was actually working for her body type".
Fleur Lombard’s death set into place a wider debate and various projects about PPE in general, its design and limitations. Special focus was given to PPE clothing and its design, fit, suitability and protection for women firefighters.
The report “National Anthropometry – survey of female firefighters” by Dr Mandy Stirling set out clearly for the first time the differences between men and women’s body shapes.
Suppliers could no longer just supply “cut down” men’s clothing for women firefighters.
In addition, the fire testing of the PPE was all undertaken at a company called BTTG in Manchester that had a new female manikin (“Sophie”) equivalent of “Ralph” the existing full flame male engulfment manikin under EN469
The investigation led to 23 recommendations, many of which were local to Avon Fire and Rescue Service but some with national implications.
The recent research from Florida University may take us a step closer to determine what female firefighters actually need, and how their gear may need to be altered further to suit their body types:
“There’s not enough research to say 100 percent ‘This is what a female turnout suit needs to be,’ but we do know women need a suit designed for them,” said author Meredith McQuerry, an assistant professor in the Jim Moran College of Entrepreneurship.
“The National Fire Protection Association sees the need. There are female and male sizes, but those are oversimplifications that don’t take different anthropometric proportions into account, like the waist-to-hip ratio, the bust or shoulder breadth.”
Mira Leinonen, chair of CTIF´s international Commission for Women in Fire & Rescue, is excited to see this research come out in support of some of the goals that the Commission has been working towards for years:
”Among the many different topics we have been working on in the Commission, are surveys to find out why so many women leave the field of firefighting. What we found is that inadequate equipment is one of the top 10 reasons women leave the job".
Mira Leinonen continues:
"This new research gives us great information on the subject. With the previous British research (in the aftermath of Fleur Lombard´s death) and with this data we can now finally give recommendations about PPE and gear to CTIF member states”.
Range of motion: A question of body type, not just height and weight
Previous studies have investigated the effects of bulky firefighting gear on the movement of male firefighters, but most research has not considered the measurements and range of motion of female firefighters.
McQuerry’s study surveyed 16 career firefighters (10 men and six women) from the Tallahassee Fire Department on the fit and mobility of their firefighting gear. The research measured range of motion in three configurations: with only a base layer, with the “turnout suit” firefighters don for protection at the scene of a fire and with a full “turnout ensemble” that includes a breathing apparatus and helmet. The subjects were measured in a three-dimensional body scanner, then performed a range-of-motion test and recorded how comfortable they were and how easy it was to move.
McQuerry found that for both male and female firefighters turnout equipment significantly reduced mobility, but the men and women reported significant differences with the parts of the suit that gave them problems. Women reported more problems with the upper body areas of their turnout suit during overhead activities and were more likely to say that the suits were too large. Men expressed more dissatisfaction with restrictions in the crotch and pant leg during lower body movements.
Because these restrictions are gender specific, there is a strong need to develop a female-specific turnout gear sizing system in addition to the existing gear designed for men, McQuerry said. Researchers should collect more data, including body measurements and mobility assessments with a larger sample size, so that both men and women fighting fires can be equipped with appropriately sized personal protective clothing, she said.
A recently awarded grant of more than $400,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will help McQuerry continue her research.
“We need more data on female firefighter anthropometrics,” she said. “A little bit has been done, but it is very limited. We need to conduct more research to understand what all of the barriers are along the production pipeline, from the design, to the sourcing, all the way to the purchasing within the fire service.”
The goals for an improved turnout suit are clear, she said: “Better performance, less exertion, better safety.”
This work was supported by the Florida State University Council on Research and Creativity’s First Year Assistant Professor program.