Boots, Fire Department, Turnout Gear

PPE Makers Using Ergonomics in Designs for Firefighters

Issue 12 and Volume 16.

Lion’s V-Force coat takes some ideas on styling patterning and material combinations from the military and athletics
(1) Lion’s V-Force coat takes some ideas on styling patterning and material combinations from the military and athletics. (Photo courtesy of Lion.)
Lion’s V-Force bunker gear incorporates flexible elbow areas and expanded knee gussets to allow greater flexibility and comfort
(2) Lion’s V-Force bunker gear incorporates flexible elbow areas and expanded knee gussets to allow greater flexibility and comfort. (Photo courtesy of Lion.)
Globe Manufacturing’s GXtreme bunker jacket uses a preshaped sleeve in the form of a bended arm to improve a firefighter’s maneuverability
(3) Globe Manufacturing’s GXtreme bunker jacket uses a preshaped sleeve in the form of a bended arm to improve a firefighter’s maneuverability. (Illustration courtesy of Globe Manufacturing.)
Globe Manufacturing lengthened the fabric over the knee of its bunker pants and removed material from the back of the knee, eliminating restrictions when climbing, crawling, or stepping up
(4) Globe Manufacturing lengthened the fabric over the knee of its bunker pants and removed material from the back of the knee, eliminating restrictions when climbing, crawling, or stepping up. (Illustration courtesy of Globe Manufacturing.)
Honeywell Safety Products tailors its Morning Pride line of PPE to suit an individual’s needs, from adjusting shoulder width of the coat to altering the waist, hem, or inseam length of the pants
(5) Honeywell Safety Products tailors its Morning Pride line of PPE to suit an individual’s needs, from adjusting shoulder width of the coat to altering the waist, hem, or inseam length of the pants. (Photo courtesy of Honeywell Safety Products.)
 Honeywell Safety Products designs alteration points into all its lines of gear, shown here in the Morning Pride brand, to allow custom fitting for individual firefighters
(6) Honeywell Safety Products designs alteration points into all its lines of gear, shown here in the Morning Pride brand, to allow custom fitting for individual firefighters. (Photo courtesy of Honeywell Safety Products.)

When firefighters are using their personal protective equipment (PPE) on the fireground, the gear should be responsive and comfortable—not tight, restricting, or difficult to wear. Accordingly, ergonomics and a more tailored fit are buzzwords being used by PPE manufacturers that have spent a great deal of time debriefing firefighters on their use of gear and have crafted PPE styles that allow generous mobility in areas that flex and bend the most—knees, elbows, back, and seat.

Proactive Development

Karen Lehtonen, director of products for Lion, says that because PPE isn’t developed in a vacuum, Lion went out into the field and interviewed firefighters about how their gear fit and where it worked against them while performing tasks. “We also looked at other areas where clothing is trying to do the same thing—protect the wearer yet not be restrictive,” she says. “The military and athletics are such areas, and we were able to take some ideas from them on styling, patterning, and material combinations that improve movement and help reduce stress on the firefighter, because the gear is not fighting him while he’s wearing it.”

Hayley Fudge, Lion’s director of marketing, says the bending areas of a person’s body are where the stress points are located. “We have to think about how a firefighter is moving; what the garment is being asked to do; and where it might need more flex, like in the elbows and the knees,” she says.

As a result, Lion’s Janesville V-Force gear incorporates a flexible elbow area that allows the arm to bend freely and comfortably while still keeping the wrists protected. Fudge says it’s designed similarly to the bellows underarm construction, where a football-shaped insert is set behind the elbow that expands to eliminate tugging at the sleeve or shoulder when a firefighter flexes his arm.

Accommodating Reach

Lehtonen points out the most troublesome areas in bunker gear are those that are involved in reaching forward and upward and stepping up or down. Lion’s bunker pants have a gusset that the knee can fall into when a firefighter is climbing, crawling, bending, or kneeling. Lion also uses its Lite-N-Dri cushioning to give supplemental thermal insulation at the knee and in other high-compression areas such as shoulders, elbows, and the yoke. In addition, Lion eliminated crotch seams in its bunker pants to reduce tension on the gear and provide added wearing comfort.

Lion manages moisture in its gear though its Isodri technology, a combination of materials that blocks outside sourced water, wicks perspiration off the body, and resists storing water inside the protective envelope. Lehtonen points out that Lion shortly will offer a new collar on its bunker coat that has less of an abrasion factor and interfaces better with a fire helmet and a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) face piece.

Focusing on the Wearer

Mark Mordecai, director of business development for Globe Manufacturing Company, notes the entire issue of what’s called ergonomics actually means focusing on the person inside the gear. “A firefighter has to be insulated, wear a heavy SCBA, carry a charged hoseline and other equipment, and go into a structure fire with significant weight and restrictions that can compromise performance,” Mordecai points out. “Anything we can do to improve that performance is good.”

Mordecai observes that many firefighters tell Globe they want lighter gear but also gear that fits better to accommodate how the body moves. He says several years ago Globe worked with university researchers to study how the body moves, where restrictions occur, and how they might be overcome. “Gear had been designed for standing upright at the time,” Mordecai says, “and wasn’t designed for stretching or reaching. So, we had to add length and fullness in those areas where the body bends—at the shoulders when moving the arms and in the waist, elbows, and at the knees.”

Globe lengthened the fabric over the top of the knee on bunker pants by five inches and removed material from the back where it would bunch up when bending the knee inside the gear, Mordecai says. This resulted in no restriction when climbing stairs, crawling, or stepping up into a vehicle’s cab. “We also added eight inches to the seat of the pants because, if we didn’t, when the firefighter bends his knee, it would pull the trousers tightly down to get the length and bind,” Mordecai notes. “In order to keep that roomy fit under control, we use a belt construction in the front and an elasticized construction in the back. That holds in the added fullness in the seat, but the belted front means we can cut the pants closer so they fit like a pair of jeans, instead of a pair of overalls.” Because of the dual belted and elasticized construction, he adds, “suspenders are now a personal preference and no longer required to hold our bunker pants up.”

On the bunker jacket, Globe uses a preshaped sleeve that takes the form of a bended arm, instead of adding or eliminating material at the elbow. “When you reach over your head, you don’t want to be dragging the shell of the garment with you,” Mordecai observes, “so we attach the wristlet to the thermal liner instead of the shell, so the thermal liner can slide inside the shell.” Globe’s design philosophy, he notes, is to build the garment around the body rather than build the garment from the outside envelope in.

More than Jackets and Pants

Alan Schierendeck, senior product specialist for Honeywell Safety Products, says ergonomics play a big part in the design of his company’s structural firefighting gear. “Consider a fire helmet,” he says. “The fit is the number one concern, and you have to be able to have the helmet adapt to various sizes as well as the shape of the head.” Schierendeck notes that a helmet’s suspension limits the depth to which the head enters the dome of the helmet, but that the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) requires that suspension not be adjustable. Adjustability comes in the headband, he says.

“With our design of headband for our structural firefighting helmets, we find that 85 percent of firefighters find the helmet fits and is comfortable right out of the box,” Schierendeck notes. “The rest adjust the headband to their individual needs and safety.”

In PPE, Honeywell produces the Morning Pride, Ranger, PRO Warrington, and Sperian brands. Schierendeck points out all the brands focus on ergonomics and the firefighter’s physiological point of view in their design. “We want the firefighter to be able to operate in any body attitude that he can get into while wearing our turnout gear,” Schierendeck says. “A firefighter should be able to bend over, step up, crawl, cross his arms in a butterfly stroke, or reach over his head, and the gear should not bind. It should be responsive in what we call an occupational body position.”

Designed for Multiple Body Types

Schierendeck notes that Honeywell’s gear is designed to fit the three typical types of bodies for both genders—endomorph (rounded), ectomorph (narrow shoulders, slim, and tall), and mesomorph (muscular and angular). “We started with good patterning and engineered pattern alteration points into the gear designs so we can alter the pattern where necessary,” Schierendeck says. “We’ve found that our chest, waist, and sleeve measurements fit 85 percent of those using the gear. The rest might need some type of alteration, perhaps a longer inseam or a higher rise in the pants.”

Honeywell’s gear can be tailored to suit needs, he adds, from adjusting the width of the shoulder to the waist and hem of the coat, flaring or tapering, changing the waist or hem, or altering the rise or inseam length. “Morning Pride is the brand that’s most alterable,” Schierendeck notes, “and we’re increasing the alteration capabilities on it.”

Bend at the Arms and Legs

Steve Bonamer, director of sales and marketing for FireDex, says his firm looked at the ergonomics of gear back in 2006 and redesigned its line so material was used where it was needed. “A lot of gear at the time was oversized, with large leg pipes and arm panels bigger than they needed to be,” Bonamer says. “We designed our FX gear with an arms-forward resting position so the sleeves were in a natural state instead of designing the sleeves flat. It was the same with the pants, where the legs were designed prebent instead of straight.”

The advantage to the prebent arms and legs, he maintains, is the gear isn’t fighting the firefighter when he moves his arms or legs, crawls, or climbs. “Considering ergonomics led us to that design where you don’t simply add material to a bending area because that adds weight, and the extra size or girth could be detrimental when using the gear,” Bonamer notes.

FireDex acquired the Chieftain line of PPE in 2008 and has used the same ergonomic design on that line of gear. “Arms-forward and legs-bent design can be found across all our lines of gear but is heightened in our FX, which is our premium line,” he adds.

Bonamer points out that bunker pants with a shorter rise have become popular, partly for ergonomic reasons and partly for style. “The shorter pants allow a more natural bending at the knee, but you can have overlap concerns with the coat,” he says. “However, you can add extra protection by a rear bib on the back of the pants or an extension on the back of the coat to give the right overlap protection when the firefighter is bent over or crawling.”

Bonamer maintains that FireDex is the only major PPE maker that isn’t required to use a throat strap on its bunker coat. “We’ve developed a closure at the throat that provides a superior interface between the SCBA face mask and the turnout coat, allowing the ability to look down and not be restricted by a throat strap,” he says.

While ergonomic considerations are important in driving PPE design, Bonamer thinks another element is as important. “Sizing is critical in PPE,” he says. “If the coat is too small for the wearer, the firefighter won’t be properly protected, and if it’s too large, it can become restrictive in movement.”


ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.

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