Tools & Technologies: Firefighter Turnout Gear: Why Is Fit Important?

Mark Mordecai and Pat Freeman explain why the days of building turnout gear that fits a "normal" range of firefighters are over.

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 (NFPA) 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 (SCBA), in two positions:

1. Standing, hands together, reaching overhead as high as possible.

2. 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

• Gender. 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.

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