A Cornell University professor is using 3-D imaging technologies to study firefighter bunker gear in hopes of reducing job-related muscles and skeleton injuries, such as ankle sprain. The five-year project will work toward finding weakness in current protective gear design, including boots, and then develop better-fitting gear tailored to both male and female firefighters.
For the project, dubbed Biomechanics Assessment of Firefighters Mobility While Walking and Stair Climbing, Cornell researchers collaborated with International Personnel Protection and Honeywell First Responder Products, which donated 26 pairs of rubber and leather firefighter boots to be used in the experiment, said Huiju Park, the project’s principal researcher and assistant professor in the university’s Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design. Park said bulky protective gear is a major cause of firefighters' onsite injuries.
“I was motivated to conduct this project by research that showed firefighter injuries came most often, not from burns, but from poor body balance on a slippery, unstable fireground,” he said.
Park’s research project aims to determine how bulky and heavy firefighter gear and boots affect performance, especially during walking and stair climbing. Researchers are using a 3-D motion-capture system technology and more than 20 plantar pressure, piezoelectric sensors to assess how protective equipment affects firefighters as they walk and climb stairs in a simulated work environment.
“The sensors are inserted inside of boots and then the firefighters perform movements while we measure the pressure distribution,” he explained.
The 3-D motion system records subtle changes in balance, foot comfort and joint movement, Park said. In fact, he already has analyzed the range of motion at each joint as well as the pressure applied inside their shoes of eight male and four female firefighters.
“Right now, we are analyzing range of motion at each joint while walking and stair climbing and getting over an obstacle to see whether boots design changes the range of motion at each joint,” he said. “We also are analyzing pressure inside boots to see how design changes foot comfort as well.”
Park is hoping to make firefighters' movements more natural and comfortable by designing better-fitting protective gear. He 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 are doing same work but they just wear men's clothing," he said. "When there's an uncomfortable fit, there's more danger of injuries."
Each participant put on the 3d motion sensor suit on their body (middle) and then they put on their gear on top of it (left). Park’s motion capture system simulates the participant’s motion on real time base with an avatar (right). The system records continuous change in range of motion at each joint in different garment conditions to see the incremental impact of protective equipment on their performance in walking, stair climbing and getting over an obstacle.