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How Technology Can Reduce Firefighter Injuries

Advances from an unlikely place–Cornell’s clothing researchers.
December 4, 2012

Being a firefighter sounds like a tough job–for obvious reasons, right? You put your life on the line–a building might collapse on you, or you might be engulfed in flames, or inhale a lethal dose of smoke. And doubtless, these things happen, and firefighters are real heroes for risking them. In fact, though, the most common injury to firefighters isn’t any of these dramatic, life-threatening things. Rather, it’s the more mundane wear-and-tear of this intensely physical job: damage to the muscles and skeleton. A Cornell professor hopes to reduce those injuries, in a clever way: by re-engineering firefighters boots and gear.

The professor’s name is Huiju Park, and he works in Cornell’s Department of Fiber Science & Apparel Design, reports Sarah Cutler in Cornell Chronicle Online. Cutler says Park is using “advanced 3-D motion capture system technology and plantar pressure sensors” in order to gain a better understanding of firefighters’ apparel-related needs.  Park is wiring up firefighters–eight men and four women, so far–and having them move around, like extras doing mo-cap for a video game or Peter Jackson movie (see “The Digital Puppeteer Behind Rise of the Planet of the Apes”).

Essentially, Park is zooming in to get a better look at the range of motion at each joint. He’s also examining how pressure is distributed inside their shoes, and how heavy protective gear can cause imbalance or inefficient movement. When Park’s team compiles its findings, it’ll join that data with information being collected in analogous projects at the University of Buffalo and Colorado State University; all that data will be synthesized in the form of new design guidelines for protective gear.

Cutler says that Park “expects” manufacturers to be interested, but that that’s “not the primary goal.” Let’s hope, though, that Park–or someone with firefighters’ interests at heart–is considering the realities of business as part of the equation. Cutler points out that many of the chief comfort-related complaints are coming from women firefighters, a growing sector who still make up the minority in a profession traditionally dominated by men. But since manufacturers don’t yet consider women to be “major customers,” many women are having to wear gear manufactured for men.

Convincing manufacturers that a mass market exists for women firefighters may be just as crucial–or even more important–than sending those manufacturers a detailed report on how they can tweak their gear to make it more comfortable for the male majority that currently wears them. It sounds like hacking the cost of customization may be one of the central problems at the heart of reducing the stress involved with wearing firefighting gear.

Cornell’s Department of Fiber Science & Apparel Design, incidentally, is a mecca for any fashion/science geek. I once spoke to a professor there at length about the promise of 3-D scanners for making custom fitted clothing. Others there are looking at nanofibers, “electrospun sensor assemblies,” and the history of textile tech.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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