Finding the Right Gear for Firefighters

By Nick Fustor, November 4, 2016

Finding the Right Gear for Firefighters

For generations, firefighters have sacrificed their lives to serve and protect people around the world. But all that time, they have worn cumbersome gear that doesn’t provide much comfort for their bodies, including their backs and legs.

Rumit Singh Kakar, an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at Ithaca College, recently teamed up with researchers at Cornell University to study the physiological effects of the backpack harnesses and boots that firefighters wear.

Back to the Future
Kakar conducted research in the Ithaca College Movement Analysis Lab to study the effects of a new, more efficient backpack harness system for firefighters. The study was conducted in collaboration with Deborah King, professor of exercise and sport sciences, with support from a Cornell University grant.

Ithaca College students assisted in the backpack study by performing data collection and analysis.

Kakar said the preliminary results of the study indicate that the new harness system does not provide biomechanical or physiological benefits, but that it is much more comfortable for wearers.

“A big chunk of the individuals who carried the load using the new harness said it was a lot more comfortable than using the traditional harness,” Kakar said.

Kakar stressed the importance of the human factor in their results, despite finding that the new harness makes no measurable difference to the way the body moves. The new harness essentially makes it so that weight is carried closer to the center of the body, which makes it feel less difficult to carry. He’s hopeful his research on the new backpack harness will one day be implemented in the field.

“There’s a huge bridge from lab research to actual implementation,” Kakar said. “That’s what a lot of my research tries to focus on, bridging that gap from lab to the actual implementation.”

These Boots Are Made for Squatting
For the boot study, Kakar worked with Huiju Park, an assistant professor in the Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design at Cornell University, to understand the impacts different boot heights would have on firefighters of different heights. Currently, firefighters all wear one standard boot height.

Kakar and the other researchers hypothesized that firefighters need individualized boot heights to properly perform essential tasks like walking in a squatting position. Also known as duck-walking, firefighters often walk in this position because they frequently work in narrow spaces with decreased head or foot clearance caused by fallen beams or ceilings. Kakar said their boots will often push into the back of firefighters’ knees when they duck-walk, causing discomfort in the knee and calf.

“If there’s a high boot, and it’s pushing against your knees at your back, you won’t be able to squat down as far,” Kakar said. “Or you will force yourself to go down and that would not be a good thing. Either way you won’t have perfect balance, because you’re not in the most optimal position.”

Their preliminary results found that the shorter the firefighter, the more hindered they are by the boots. However, he said preliminary results did not show a noticeable difference in physical effects on individuals near six feet and above.

“For individuals who were tall, the boot height didn’t matter a whole lot to them — which makes sense because they have longer limbs,” he said. “The shorter individuals on the other hand, couldn’t go too far into squat position, which was expected.”

In the study, however, participants wore flexible rubber boots, which are not commonly worn by firefighters. By wearing flexible boots, Kakar said the impacts could have been lessened. Research is still being done to determine the impacts of standard boots worn by firefighters.

You can follow Assistant Professor Rumit Kakar on Twitter or LinkedIn