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It may sound strange, but the protective gear that keeps firefighters safe can also cause them injury.
For years, it’s been a given that the apparel and equipment firefighters wear is heavy, bulky and unwieldy. That’s the sacrifice firefighters have learned to live with in the name of staying safe from the flames.
But a Colorado State University researcher is questioning those assumptions in hopes of developing lightweight apparel that is just as fireproof but improves comfort and balance, reducing the chances of injury.
Juyeon Park, an associate professor in CSU’s Department of Design and Merchandising, has also set her sights on improving the fit of firefighter clothing – especially for female and overweight firefighters. She said such firefighters have long been expected to wear apparel designed for the typical male physique, even though their body shapes differ significantly.
Park can custom-fit clothing to individuals using a three-dimensional scanner that has noninvasive depth sensors to measure every curve of one’s body. The importance of lightweight, comfortable and well-fitted clothing shouldn’t be underestimated, Park said, noting that about 20 percent of all firefighter injuries are caused by imbalance related to wearing heavy, awkward gear.
“We’ve been adding protective gear over the years, but that decreases their mobility,” Park said, adding that it’s not just physical, but mental: Feeling hot and uncomfortable can affect reasoning skills and short-term memory. “We’re trying to reach the right balance between protection and performance, through cutting-edge design.”
Since 2009, Park has been the lead Colorado researcher in a multistate U.S. Department of Agriculture study called NC-170: Personal Protective Technologies for Current and Emerging Occupational Hazards.
One of Park’s colleagues in the Department of Design and Merchandising, Assistant Professor Vivian Li, is collaborating in the project by using her expertise in nano-coating to develop a fire-retardant fabric that can be used in the lightweight yet high-performance protective apparel Park envisions.
Next, Park plans to turn her attention toward improving firefighter footwear. CSU is one of the few universities in the country that has the 3-D foot scanner used by major shoe manufacturers like Nike and ASICS. Helmets and gloves are also on the to-do list for enhancement, she said.