The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.
SPOKANE, Wash. — Spokane Valley firefighter Sharayah Mullerleile said ill-fitting fire gear has been a problem for her since she joined the department full time last year.
Chief Toni Washington, the first African American and female fire chief for Decatur Fire and Rescue in Georgia, said she's had issues with gear fit her entire career.
"The fire service is a male-dominated profession," Washington said. "It has catered to the male physique and not the women. It is a safety concern for us as women that when we have gear that doesn't properly fit us then, you know, that could be a safety hazard for us."
Researchers are investigating the design, comfort and mobility of female firefighter personal protective equipment in an effort to improve the fit.
Female firefighters from across the country gathered this week at the Centennial Hotel in Spokane for the Women in Fire 2021 International Conference, "Committed to Change."
As part of the research, Dr. Meredith McQuerry, associate professor at Florida State University's College of Entrepreneurship, said she, Dr. Cassandra Kwon, research assistant professor at North Carolina State University's College of Textiles, and research assistants collected head-to-toe body measurements of 129 female firefighters at the conference, which ended Friday. The project goal is to measure a total of 200 to 300 female firefighters, McQuerry said.
She said those measurements will enable researchers to improve the sizing, and therefore, the fit of firefighting gear for women.
McQuerry said National Fire Protection Association requirements specify female sizing and the use of a separate female equipment pattern, but with the lack of data on female firefighter body types and measurements, it's difficult to get those patterns and sizing systems as accurate as they need to be.
McQuerry said they use mobile three-dimensional body scanning technology to collect 150 body measurements on one person in about 15 seconds. She said they also manually measure the firefighters to validate the body scanning measurements.
Mullerleile, who was measured at the conference, said the most challenging pieces of gear are boots, which often only come in men's sizes and are too wide for people with narrow feet, and fire jackets.
While they can size down in a men's fire jacket, the wrists and neck are often too big, which can allow steam and heat close to the skin, she said. Pockets on the jacket hit at the wrong spot and the torso is often the wrong length.
"There's an extra little obstacle you have to jump because just learning how to walk and move in men's boots, men's gear," Mullerleile said.
McQuerry said the study plans to focus in areas where female firefighters tend to have most problems with gear fitting correctly, including the chest, waist, hips and neck.
She said women firefighters experience a four times greater rate of injury than men, in part because of ill-fitting personal protective equipment.
McQuerry said women make up 8% of structural firefighters. When adding volunteer firefighters, firefighter paramedics and wildland firefighters, that number is probably greater.
"It is unfortunate that we're in 2021 and female firefighters don't have gear, clothing that fits them properly," McQuerry said.
Washington said while she learned to adapt and overcome the challenges brought by ill-fitting gear, she hopes the next generation of firefighters doesn't have to.
"Women, we have that ambition, and we have that drive," Washington said. "We adapt and we overcome. We have been making it work, but just think how great we could be if we had the proper tools and the gear."
McQuerry said FEMA provided a $403,000 grant for the project. Florida State University is partnering with North Carolina State University, Women in Fire, the National Fire Protection Association and the Fire Protection Research Foundation.
(c)2021 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)