Colorado State University, Poudre Fire Authority Partner to Improve Firefighter Suits, Reduce Injuries

While there is no doubt the turnout gear worn by firefighters save their lives, the bulky, protective clothing may make firefighters clumsy, causing them to trip or be injured, and impedes vision, mobility and movement – all critical skills in fighting a fire.

Juyeon Park, assistant professor in the Department of Design and Merchandising, is partnering with Poudre Fire Authority to study ways to make current fire suits less restrictive. She hopes to develop a suit that improves movement and also passes standard requirements for firefighter turnout gear set by National Fire Protection Association.

“We know that the 40 pounds of turnout gear and additional 35 pounds of breathing equipment firefighters wear impact their balance and movement so much that it leads to accidents, injuries and even casualties,” Park said. “While there has been some research into the mobility of personal protective equipment, it has never been translated into real design solutions.”

Park is interviewing PFA firefighters about their perspectives on how their gear impedes their movement and comfort. Her research team also will have the firefighters gear up and perform routine movements to study how the turnout gear interferes with movement. She hopes to develop a new suit with innovative design features, particularly at joints, such as where gloves meet sleeves, where boots meet pants and where helmets meet jackets and breathing gear.

She’s already discovered that most firefighters are particularly frustrated by the suit and gear; they feel the suit protects them and each accompanying item is well-designed, but wearing them together is cumbersome, especially when the suit is worn over the station uniform pants, which are made of non-stretch twill fabric. Female firefighters face a particular problem being able to see because of the way their breathing gear fits their helmets due to their relatively short torso.

Current gear also has safety shortcomings. According to Park, about 38,000 firefighters were injured on the job in 2009. Many injuries are on the hand, arm, head, foot or leg.

This study is conducted as part of a five-year multi-state research project supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The project will conclude in 2017. By then, the research group hopes to develop a prototype and suggest changes to the current protective clothing to maintain safety standards and make improvements.

The Department of Design and Merchandising is in the College of Applied Human Sciences at Colorado State University.