High-tech ‘couture’ with firefighters in mind

IOWA STATE (US)—A research team at Iowa State University is using 3-D body scans to study the way firefighters move in their protective gear. Their work is part of a national effort to develop firefighter gear that fits and feels better—and is ultimately safer to wear.

Young-A Lee, an assistant professor of apparel, educational studies, and hospitality management at Iowa State, says the 3-D images allow the researchers to understand how the protective gear helps or hinders the firefighters’ movements.

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“A better sense of how and why this protective clothing works and fits as it does will be very instrumental to firefighters and the companies that create this gear,” says Lee. “With data findings that support the need for better protection, we can expand the scope of our research to include [apparel for] police officers, members of the armed forces, and [hazardous material] crews.”

The team is collecting data from local firefighters about not only the fit and function of their current gear, but also how the body and surrounding gear respond in high temperatures.

“We’ve seen a great response from local firefighters who are willing to participate and help us in whatever way possible,” says Jessica Barker, also an assistant professor of apparel, educational studies, and hospitality management at Iowa State. “Previous research has often focused on protective aspects, which are very important, but we’re learning [through focus groups] that comfort—which impacts performance—is very important to the firefighters. It’s interesting to think of the conflicting roles a garment can have—and exciting to think of the ways we can work to improve it.”

Collaborating on the project are physiological conditioning experts and kinesiology professors Warren Franke and Rick Sharp, who created a thermal stress chamber to simulate lifelike physical and environmental demands. They use cardio machines and extreme heat to replicate firefighting activity.

“In this portion of the study, firefighters will come in twice—once in regular workout clothes and once in their firefighter gear—to test their physiological responses,” says Franke, director of Iowa State’s Exercise Clinic. “The intent is to have them exercise [both times] at an intensity similar to that of going into a fire—but they will be on a treadmill. We will manipulate the heat of the chamber and increase the physical demands, then measure their core temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, cardiac output, and skin temperature.”

Sharp has experience improving performance in athletic gear as one of the designers of Speedo’s LZR Racer swimsuit, which was worn by most of the top swimmers at last summer’s Beijing Olympics, including Michael Phelps.

According to Lee, the team hopes to have a prototype design of possible changes to the gear within the next few years.

Iowa State is one of eight universities (Cornell, Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma State, and UC-Davis) participating in the research, which is part of a United States Department of Agriculture’s research project, “Personal Protective Technologies for Current and Emerging Occupational Hazards.” Iowa State’s team is funded by a College of Human Sciences intramural seed grant.

Iowa State University news: www.news.iastate.edu