It wasn’t all that long ago that women couldn’t vote, couldn’t run for office, and couldn’t work the same hours as men.
Now, traditionally male-dominated fields—like firefighting—are seeing more and more women than ever before. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), from 2011 to 2015, women accounted for, on average, nearly five percent of career firefighters.1
As the number of female firefighters continues to grow, however, there is also an increased need for uniforms engineered with women in mind. Historically, workwear manufacturers serving predominantly male industries have focused most of their efforts on men’s clothing. As a result, women have often had to wear oversized, poor-fitting garments that aren’t conducive to the movement required in their jobs. This even extends to safety apparel that must fit correctly to provide proper protection, such as flame-resistant (FR) clothing.
The fire service industry is no exception. In a study conducted by Cornell University’s Institute for Women and Work, researchers interviewed 175 female firefighters in depth and found that 80 percent said they were issued ill-fitting equipment.2
Lara McLean, a lieutenant at the Ketchum (ID) Fire Department, can attest to the problems with this firsthand. Standing at 5 feet 3 inches, McLean’s experiences with finding something to wear in a world of clothing made for men have been, in her words, “absolutely ridiculous.”
“I’ve had to get a lot of my clothes tailored,” says McLean. “The jackets are basically just a big square with holes cut in them for your arms, and they’re long enough to wear as a cocktail dress. They cover up my bunker pants pockets, so I have to do this weird thing to get into them. And, the pants themselves—I guess they must think that if you’re short, you’re also wide, so that’s a whole problem in itself.”
And those are just the basics—safety clothing for firefighters also includes boots, gloves, and face pieces. McLean’s experiences with these have been equally appalling.
“At first, my boots were impossible to walk in,” she says. “I’ve actually left a boot behind a couple of times. And, don’t even get me started on the gloves. I like to think we have separate digits for a reason. There’s so much extra space in the tips that I can’t use my fingers—I can’t even bend them.”
While there’s no question that McLean’s experiences haven’t exactly been ideal, they become even more of a problem when you consider that in a career like firefighting, clothes that don’t fit aren’t just uncomfortable, unattractive, and impractical—they can also compromise safety.
When it comes to protective apparel, clothes that fit right can be the difference between life and death. Safety gear that doesn’t fit well may not adequately protect you from hazards, and it is also more likely to get caught on something, trip you, or accidentally be dragged through dangerous substances.
Things are starting to look up a bit, though. McLean says she thinks some manufacturers have taken significant positive steps to improve women’s safety gear. For instance, FR station wear uniforms designed by women and made specifically for female firefighters are now available. FR station wear that fits well provides an added layer of protection, and certain women’s styles have even been developed using fit models to ensure the most comfortable, size-appropriate, safety-focused fit possible.
Having uniforms and gear that fit correctly is essential for both safety and optimal job performance. Therefore, as greater numbers of women join the fire service, it is important for fire departments and equipment manufacturers alike to keep the unique needs of female firefighters in mind. Tremendous strides have been made so far, but it’s up to the industry as a whole to keep the momentum going.
MARK SANER has served as the FR technical manager for Workrite Uniform Company, a brand of VF Corporation, since 2006. Saner brings 40 years of experience in the fire and safety industries to his work, including 29 years in technical support, safety standards, and product development for Akron Brass. Saner participates as a voting member within a number of national and international safety organizations to help develop, revise, influence, and further improve standards for worker safety.