ITHACA, N.Y. – Bulky gear is a major cause of injuries to firefighters, but a Cornell University researcher is using 3-D motion capture technology to try and chance that.
The top firefighter injury isn’t burns or smoke inhalation, but damage to the muscles and skeleton, such as ankle sprains, said Huiju Park, Cornell professor of Fiber Science & Apparel Design in the College of Human Ecology.
Park is the principal investigator of a five-year project to make firefighters’ movements more natural and comfortable by designing better-fitting protective gear.
“Boots provide mechanical protection from burns, but they’re very uncomfortable. Every step is an effort to move forward,” said Park.
With graduate students and undergraduate members of his Functional Aspects of Clothing Design class, Park and his research team are using advanced 3-D motion capture system technology and plantar pressure sensors to 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 special effects in films and video games – records subtle changes in balance, foot comfort and joint movement.
So far, Park 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 have also examined the ways the body is affected by wearing protective gear, as well as what causes poor balance and inefficient movement.
Funded by the federal government, the experiment is based largely on firefighters’ input from a focus group and survey Park’s team conducted this past summer. Park aims to develop new performance and design guidelines for protective gear as part of a larger study with researchers at the University at Buffalo and Colorado State University.
Park is particularly interested in the difficulty many female firefighters have in finding well-fitting coats and pants. Because firefighting is traditionally a profession for men, manufacturers don’t consider women to be major customers, he said.
“Female firefighters don’t often get the right size, right fit. Sometimes they just wear men’s clothing,” he said. “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.
“This is not about business,” Park said. “It’s about protection for first responders who care for our community.”