FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Being a firefighter is getting more hazardous by the day because of modern materials that make urban blazes burn hotter than just a few years ago, say fire officials.
That's why the ongoing work of Colorado State University professor Juyeon Park is so important, they say. Park is part of a multistate study of firefighter gear, working to develop equipment that improves movement. The five-year study is supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Contemporary protective clothing for firefighters is sturdy and saves lives. But the gear also is heavy and makes firefighters clumsy, causing them to trip, or it impedes their vision and mobility, Park said.
"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."
Hopefully some new ideas will emerge, said Patrick Love, spokesman for the Poudre Fire Authority, where Park is doing her research.
"We're glad to see someone working in this," Love said. "If we can lower the injury and death rate, that's good for everyone involved."
Park is interviewing Poudre firefighters about how their gear affects their movement and comfort. Her research team also will have firefighters suit up and perform routine movements to study how the gear interferes with movement.
She hopes to develop a new suit with innovative design features, particularly at joints — where gloves meet sleeves, boots meet pants, and helmets meet jackets and breathing gear.
Most firefighters feel their fire suits protect them, but they say adding a piece of gear makes it more cumbersome; for example, when the suit is worn over the station uniform pants, which are made of nonstretch twill fabric, Park said.
Female firefighters also find it tough to see because of the way their breathing gear fits their helmets over their relatively short torso, Park said.
"We are looking at military uniforms and gear to maybe emulate because military uniforms generally make for a better fit," said Park, assistant professor at CSU's Department of Design and Merchandising.
Park's work could be key in reducing injuries to firefighters. About 78,000 firefighters were injured on the job in 2009, with many injuries on the hand, arm, head, foot or leg, Park said.
Many fires now burn plastics, which makes them hotter and tougher to deal with, Love said.
"We're being protected well, but that intense heat can quickly take its toll," he said. "Anything that can basically make it easier to move in, that protective suit will take less of a toll on us."