Building Better Firefighter Gear by Using 3-D Imaging

A major cause of firefighter injuries is ill-fitting and bulky gear, but a Cornell University researcher using 3-D motion-capture technology wants to change that.

Poor fitting boots can cause ankle sprains, for example, but using 3-D motion-capture technology can help build a better boot. “Boots provide mechanical protection from burns, but they’re very uncomfortable. Every step is an effort to move forward,” says Huiju Park, Cornell professor of fiber science and apparel design, College of Human Ecology.

Park is the principal investigator on a project to make firefighters’ movements more comfortable and natural by designing better-fitting protective gear.

With graduate and undergraduate students in his “Functional Aspects of Clothing Design” class, Park and his research team used a 3-D motion-capture system. Plantar pressure sensors assess how protective equipment affects firefighters as they walk and climb stairs in a simulated work environment. The 3-D imaging — the same technology used to create movie and video game special effects — records subtle changes in balance, foot comfort and joint movement.

So far, Park’s group has analyzed the range of motion at each joint for eight male and four female firefighters, as well as the pressure applied inside their shoes. They examined the ways the body is affected by wearing protective gear, understanding what causes poor balance and inefficient movement.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, Park’s research received firefighters’ input from focus groups and surveys. He aims to develop new performance and design guidelines for protective gear, as part of a larger study with University at Buffalo and Colorado State University researchers.

Also, Park found that many female firefighters have difficulty finding coats and pants that fit. In a male-dominated profession, manufacturers don’t consider women as major customers, he says. “Female firefighters don’t often get the right size, right fit. Sometimes they just wear men’s clothing,” Park says. “When there’s an uncomfortable fit, there’s more danger of injuries.”

At the study’s end, Park hopes to be able to suggest a better design for protective gear. He expects manufacturers to be interested, but, he emphasized, that’s not the primary goal of his project.

Says Park: “This is not about business. It’s about protection for first responders who care for our community.”

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