Why Women in the Fire Service Need Better-Fitting Gear
Have you ever tried on clothes only to find out you are no longer the size you thought you were? On a recent trip to Europe I was in a men’s clothing store looking to purchase a new suit. What I thought was my size—a large—turned out to be a supersized XXL in the European system. Yikes! Now take that experience and think of it the other way around. Imagine having to wear a coat or trousers two to three sizes larger than you need. That is similar to what many women in the fire service have had to face for decades when it comes to their personal protection equipment (PPE).
According to the 2020 US Fire Department Profile report, there are nearly 90,000 female firefighters in the United States—that’s 9 percent of all firefighters in the US. Of that number, 17,200 were career and 72,400 were volunteer. Over the last 10 years the number of female firefighters has increased. Yet many women firefighters, especially in the volunteer fire service, end up being issued used gear that was designed for men.
Finding the proper fit is about more than just sizing down. Most of the time, a women’s size is not just a smaller men’s size. Proportions are different and they need—and deserve—the right-fitting gear.
Why improper fits are more than just an inconvenience
Studies dating back more than a decade have shown that as many as 80 percent of female firefighters experience issues with improperly fitting PPE.
Improperly fitting gear—such as firefighter gloves, firefighter boots, bunker pants, and bunker coats—isn’t just a nuisance for women in the fire service, but it can also lead to injuries. Bunker pants that are too long or bulky, for instance, can lead to trips, falls, and an inability to move efficiently. Bunker coats that are too long can lead to injuries while using an axe or power equipment or advancing a hoseline. Four percent of firefighter injuries happen to women, according to the Fire Department Profile. This figure isn’t all due to poor-fitting gear, but that can certainly be a contributing factor.
In an interview published by NFPA Journal® in 2021, Dr. Meredith McQuerry, a Florida State University professor and expert in clothing comfort physiology, said female firefighters have a 33 percent higher risk of on-duty injury than their male counterparts. “Ill-fitting PPE is certainly playing a role in that greater risk of injury and even risk of fatality,” McQuerry told the magazine. “They’re not able to move as easily or as quickly as they need to. That puts them at greater risk.”
What does the future of female firefighter PPE look like?
Some very interesting research has been done by McQuerry that will help drive solutions to the problem of improperly fitting gear for female firefighters.
With support from the Fire Protection Research Foundation, the research affiliate of NFPA®, McQuerry and other researchers were able to recently create the first-ever database of female firefighter anthropometrics—a fancy way of describing a person’s physical measurements. With that data, which included measurements from nearly 200 female firefighters, McQuerry and her team hope to ultimately propose a sizing system for female firefighter PPE. That system could then be shared with and considered by manufacturers as well as the technical committees responsible for updating NFPA 1970, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural and Proximity Firefighting, Work Apparel and Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) for Emergency Services, and Personal Alert Safety Systems (PASS).
“Our ultimate goal is to propose female sizing systems for structural and wildland PPE, to share those with the fire service [and] to share those with manufacturers and standards bodies to create, hopefully, in tandem, real change for women in the fire service,” McQuerry said during a recent webinar hosted by NFPA. You can watch the full hour-and-a-half presentation in the “Archives” section of the NFPA Webinars webpage.