February 12, 2013

Improving Firefighter Gear Using 3-D Technology

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According to the U.S. Fire Administration, over 70 percent of firefighters are volunteers. Of these voluntters, over half are more than 40 years old, a benchmark where the incidence of muscular and skeletal injury becomes more frequent.

Prof. Huiju Park, fiber science and apparel design, works with 3-D technology to improve firefighter gear and reduce the number of injuries sustained by firefighters on the job.

“The purpose of the research project is to determine how different boot and outfit designs affect firefighters’ performance,” he said.

Firefighter equipment is made with burn prevention in mind. After all, the uniform is the only thing standing between a flaming environment and a firefighter’s body, Park said.

But by concentrating on making gear fireproof and resistant to high temperatures, manufacturers often overlook design or comfort and create gear that does not lend itself well to movement.

According to Park, “the number one injury for firefighters is not burns, but rather, muscular and skeletal injury due to unstable and slippery conditions.”

“We are applying a variety of instruments to this project, including a motion-capture system, plantar-pressure system and a 3-D body scanner. The systems are adapted and integrated together to carefully analyze a range of topics concerning turnout gear i.e mobility, fit and performance,” said Kevin Chen ’14, an undergraduate in Park’s lab.

To test overall body movement, the researchers covered firefighters from Ithaca with body sensors.

“This technology has been widely used in Hollywood for movie making,” Park said.

The firefighters then performed a series of movements in the sensors without firefighter gear –– walking on flat ground, climbing up and down stairs and stepping over obstacles on the ground. The same tests were repeated with the test subjects wearing firefighter gear over the sensors. The two results were compared using 3-D technology, according to Park.

Together, the sensors render a 3-D figure on a computer that mirrors the movement of the firefighter. While the sensors record data, a camcorder records the subject’s real-time movement so that the information passed through the sensors is matched with specific body movements of the subject. Through this motion capture system, scientists can assess joint mobility and the overall degree of freedom of a firefighter’s uniform.

Park also tested firefighters’ boots for mobility. Firefighter boots are either made of rubber or leather with steel toes to prevent falling debris from incapacitating the firefighter. Rubber boots, although half the price, can weigh at least three pounds more than their leather counterparts.

Park used plantar sensors, thin sole-shaped sensors inserted into the boot, to measure how pressure is distributed while firefighters walked in the bulky boots. While the subject is walking, climbing stairs and stepping over obstacles, the plantar sensors send data to a computer.

On the computer, the video is matched up to two footprint shapes that indicate the area measured by the plantar sensors. When pressure is applied, colors indicate the magnitude of the pressure on the foot, with red as high pressure and blue as low, according to Park.

When combined, the plantar and body sensors create an accurate depiction of the strains and stresses a firefighter’s body undergoes when moving in the stiff and bulky gear.

According to Park, the researchers found that the equipment made to protect firefighters impairs their ability to move.

In an emergency, every second is crucial for success. Firefighters have a limit of 50 minutes to complete their job before their oxygen runs out, and if conditions are slippery from attempts to douse flames, their movements may be slowed by an inability to be flexible. According to Park, trying to move faster than the equipment allows also poses a risk of injury.

In addition to the inherent bulky characteristics of firefighter gear, many firefighters are affected by the poor fit of their uniforms. Firefighters often grab whatever gear they can find when they leave to complete a job. This gear can be too large or too small and therefore further complicate movement, according to Park.

Women are especially vulnerable to ill-fitting garments. According to Park, since firefighters are predominantly male, women are at a disadvantage because manufacturers tailor their gear to fit male bodies.

With the data collected, Park hopes to convince suit and boot manufacturers of the importance of creating gear that is safe both in terms of thermal protection and mobility.

“What I want to achieve is a better design for uniforms and boots. I want to collaborate with the [firefighter gear] industry and focus on mobility design in addition to thermal protection,” Park said.

Original Author: Yvonne Huang