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Women Supporting Women (In Fire)

a graduate student adjusts an ipad to gather measurements of a female firefighter
A graduate student collects measurement data from a firefighter.

By Sarah Stone

Becoming a firefighter means exposure to life-threatening risks, from heat stress to cancer-causing particulates, burns and falling debris. It means committing to pressure-filled shifts spent putting out fires, investigating scenes and saving lives. For women, it means doing all of this dangerous and stress-inducing work using uncomfortable equipment that doesn’t fit. 

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that the number of women firefighters continues to increase. According to the most recent NFPA study, 9% of firefighters in the U.S. are women. However, the equipment vital to doing these women’s jobs hasn’t grown with them. 

“They’re basically wearing station wear that isn’t fit for their bodies. They are wearing male suits. To close the gap, some manufacturers cobbled together a female fit, but that was just essentially just shortening the length of their pants and sleeves,” Research Assistant Professor Cassandra Kwon says. “Females are inherently built differently from their male counterparts, and many of those differences in form are not accounted for in the current designs.”

Cassandra Kwon
Research Assistant Professor Cassandra Kwon

Kwon, who works at Zeis Textiles Extension, says she first noticed the potential for disparity through discussions with then Ph.D. student Meredith McQuerry. The women were each conducting their own research for the Textile Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC) about firefighting equipment.

“As we’re talking, we’re realizing that a lot of what we were developing was based on the male form only,” she remembers. 

This inspired McQuerry, who is now an associate professor at Florida State University, and Kwon to combine their resources and expertise with the ultimate objective of creating a turnout suit for female firefighters. Think of a turnout suit as a firefighter’s first line of defense. It’s the actual protective suit and outermost layer worn by a firefighter, but it can look very different depending on the type of fire.

Kwon says the initial steps towards making this happen will be to demonstrate the need to manufacturers and determine what changes need to be made to existing suits.

Women in Fire International Conference
Cassandra Kwon (center) and graduate students at the Women in Fire International Conference.

During the Women in Fire International Conference in October, the research group made big strides towards these goals. Kwon, McQuerry and four students attended the event, which invites female firefighters from across the nation to participate. The six researchers collected body scans of nearly 130 firefighters. They also interviewed nearly 40 women during anonymous focus groups. All but two of the women interviewed said they had problems with their suits. 

The focus groups revealed that these ill-fitting suits cause more than just a nagging discomfort. Kwon says when given the opportunity to reflect, many firefighters realized their turnout suits had impacted how they performed their most basic duties. 

“They changed their approach. Most everybody said that they had issues with their pants and how the crotch length from the pants is so long that they can’t lift their leg, so they have to pull their pants up every time they go into a rig or up a ladder,” she explains. “Same thing with the neck collar on their jackets. A lot of times, it’s so tall that women have a hard time bending their head or looking back. Or it comes up too high, rubs and actually causes chafing, so a lot of them were like, ‘Yeah, I wear my hood over it, so it sort of protects my chin.’”

Kwon and McQuerry are reaching out to fire departments in North Carolina and Florida to schedule more surveys and body scans before they prepare their findings for manufacturers and standards committees. Kwon says a number of manufacturers and organizations have already told her they want to help properly equip all firefighters.

“It’s something that everybody’s been interested in,” she says. “Everybody’s been asking us, ‘When is this going to publish?’”