Firefighter turnout gear: Why fit is important
Taking the time to select the proper fit will improve firefighter safety and performance
By Mark Mordecai and Pat Freeman
Firefighters come in a remarkable range of shapes and sizes — which isn't surprising, as firefighters span the entire adult population — so the days of building turnout gear that fits a "normal" range of firefighters are over.
When your gear really fits your body, it's not just more comfortable; it enables you to perform your job to the maximum of your ability — but that's not all.
Although National Fire Protection Association 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, and NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, address turnout gear fit — and manufacturers have been meeting these minimum requirements for years — many firefighters are still getting gear that doesn't fit well.
NFPA 1971 provides for the minimum availability of sizes for chest, sleeve, waist and inseam, as well as requiring specific patterns for men and for women, but the standard doesn't provide for different body shapes.
NFPA 1500 speaks to "fit" only in terms of the required overlap between the jacket and pants — at least a two-inch (5.08-cm) overlap of all layers — so there is no gap in the total thermal protection when both protective garments are worn.
The standard further specifies how this overlap shall be measured on the wearer, without self-contained breathing apparatus, in two positions:
- Standing, hands together, reaching overhead as high as possible.
- Standing, hands together, reaching overhead, with body bent forward at a 90-degree angle, to the left or right and back.
These standards help keep you safe, but don't guarantee that your gear really fits.
The physiology of performance
Firefighting requires a lot of bending. Every time you step up, crawl or work with your arms in front of you, you're bending.
Consider this: When you bend your knee, your skin has to stretch five inches to cover it, as compared to when your leg is straight. That's why the skin over your knee is wrinkled: so it’s able to stretch to accommodate this movement. You also need eight more inches in length in the seat in order to bend your knee freely.
When you bend over at the waist, you need more length to cover your back and seat — and when you raise your arms to work in front of you, you need more length across your back and under your arms. If you don’t get this added length in your turnout gear, your movement will be restricted.
How do you get this added length where you need it? One way would be to wear turnouts that are oversized and baggy, but they would be bulky, heavy and in your way.
Or you could make turnouts from stretch fabric. Unfortunately, the technology isn't available that would let all three layers of your turnout stretch.
The best alternative is to have turnouts that are tailored to fit your body with the added length and fullness to accommodate when you move and bend. A more tailored fit will reduce weight and bulk while providing you with increased mobility so you can perform your job more effectively.
Dimensions of fit
When it comes to fit, women really are different than men; and just as there is no normal-size man, there just is no normal-size woman.
For a given waist size, women generally have wider hips relative to men, but they can also be petite, misses, women's or plus-sized, tall, short or in-between.
Although NFPA 1971 requires specific patterns for women, most women have a difficult time finding the right fit. As with male firefighters, the key to fit is gear that comes in different shapes, not just sizes.
Turnout pants aren't like a regular pair of pants because they fit over your pants, so your turnout waist size likely will be two or more inches larger than that of your street pants. Your waist measurement also depends on the height of the pants up from the crotch — called the front rise — and where you like to wear your pants.
For example, turnout pants with a shorter front rise sit below your actual waist and need to be a little wider because they sit down closer to your hips. Many men with a "front porch" wear their pants lower (under the porch), so although they have a larger waist measurement, their turnout pants are actually worn at a point that is narrower than if they pulled the pants up around their belly.
If your turnout pants have an integrated belt, how and where you secure this belt affects where the pants ride on you. There's no substitute for trying on the pants in the correct style to determine the waist size that works for you.
In turnout pants — where added length and fullness are needed to do your job without restriction — you need options to fit your body properly, just as you do when you choose a pair of jeans. Most firefighters will choose a relaxed fit for maximum mobility.
Squat down when you try on the pants: Is there excess fabric in the seat? If not, going trimmer will restrict your movement. If so, and you're trimmer in the waist, seat and thigh, you'll likely find a regular fit (that has added length, but less fullness) will be ample and less baggy.
Again, as every turnout pant style is different, there is no substitute for trying them on.
There are two opposing schools of thoughts concerning the length of the pants:
- You should wear your pants a little longer so that they don't ride up over the top of your boots when you step up and crawl.
- If the pants are too long, you will end up stepping on the cuffs and causing premature wear.
The best answer is to buy turnout pants that don't ride up, and then you can order your pants a little shorter. Shorter pants don't get stepped on or dragged through the muck. Once again, this is very style-specific, so try them on.
Chest measurement is about your chest circumference and your shoulders as well. Added length is needed across the back of the shoulders to let your arms work in front of you without restriction.
If there are horizontal lines across the shoulders in the back when you cross your arms in front, the jacket is too snug and you may be more likely to experience compression burns.
If there are vertical creases when you cross your arms, the jacket may be too loose and you may feel that it is bulky in the front of the chest and under the arms.
Most departments specify a standard back length for everyone in the department, as if everyone were the same size.
However, if the jacket is too short, the overlap with the pants will not provide adequate protection. If the jacket is too long, it's in your way when sitting down or stepping up, and you can't get into your turnout pants pockets easily.
Although taller people generally have longer torsos and shorter people shorter torsos, this is not always the case. Jacket length is like every other dimension of fit: You need a range of different lengths to fit different size people, not one stock length for every firefighter.
Most jackets are cut straight in the body, from the underarm to the bottom hem; this means that the circumference of the jacket around the chest is the same as that around the bottom hem.
Some turnout gear is tapered, with less material around your waist and hips as compared to the chest. So which shape will fit you?
First, consider whether you are planning to wear a seat harness (internal or external), a rope pouch or any other equipment around your waist beneath your jacket. If so, be sure to have this equipment in place on your pants when you try on your jacket. You'll need the jacket to slide freely or it may get hung up over the equipment and compromise your protection.
Next think about your body type. Even after you have selected the right chest size, if the shape of your jacket isn't right for you, the jacket will feel too bulky or too snug around the middle.
Are you a man with an athletic build (a larger chest and shoulders and narrower waist and hip) or are you a woman who is trimmer in the hips? If so, you would benefit from a tapered jacket.
Or are you a man with a stocky build with ample waist and hips, or a woman with fuller hips? If so, a straight-shape jacket might be a better fit for you.
A jacket that has added length in the underarm with a sleeve length that falls to your wrist bone will let you reach without restriction, and without having the cuffs drop down too low over your gloves.
When choosing sleeve length, it is important that the cuff falls at the wrist in the location that best meets your needs, while providing complete interface with your gloves — but there’s more to the story.
Since patterns for turnout makes and models vary widely, your sleeve length will depend on how the jacket fits your chest and shoulders, the design of the armhole (where the sleeve is sewn to the jacket torso) and the contour of the sleeve.
Remember that most people will require a standard-length sleeve; that is, a sleeve length that has been appropriately graded to the chest size. However, it's always best to try on a reference jacket in the right chest size and then decide whether the regular sleeve length is correct or it should be adjusted.
Why fit matters
Next time you need turnout gear, make sure it really fits your body — and remember: There is no substitute for trying on sample gear and making choices based upon all of the dimensions of fit.
Mark Mordecai is Director of Business Development and Pat Freeman is Technical Services Manager, both with Globe Manufacturing Company in Pittsfield, N.H.