Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on February 28, 2023.

Better Attire Requested

For female firefighters, working in a male-dominated profession has long meant wearing gear and protective garments designed for men—sacrificing not only comfort but safety. New research led by the Fire Protection Research Foundation hopes to change that.


In the early 2000s, Megan Fitzgerald-McGowan spent eight summers as a seasonal firefighter in Washington State, trudging through forests, digging firebreaks, and mopping up hotspots. She loved the work, but there was one day each spring that invariably led to frustration: the annual visit to her unit’s supply cache to pick out her wildland gear for the upcoming season.
That’s because no matter how much time Fitzgerald-McGowan spent sifting through racks of men’s-sized Nomex pants and shirts—the only options the state agency made available to her—the sleeves were always too long or too short, the waist too tight or too big, the crotch always too low. Year after year, she left the outfitting session knowing that an uncomfortable fire season awaited.
“Imagine you’re working 12-hour days for 14 days straight on a wildfire, hiking through the woods, always squatting and lifting, while wearing pants that are slightly too tight because the next size up is too big,” she said, grimacing as if reliving the experience. “The pressure around your stomach builds to the point where, by the end of the day, you’re just relieved to take them off. Nothing ever fit right.”

Fitzgerald-McGowan, now the manager of NFPA’s Firewise USA® program, wasn’t alone. In the world of structural and wildland firefighting, her experience is the norm for more women than many people realize, according to the results of a new multiyear research project sponsored by the Fire Protection Research Foundation. The report, “Investigation of Design, Comfort, and Mobility Issues for Female Firefighter Personal Protective Clothing,” will be out later this year and offers perhaps the most comprehensive look to date at the causes and the potential solutions to a problem that many female firefighters have long suffered through, largely in silence.

“I think for a long time most female firefighters, both from structural and wildland, have felt like they just have to make do,” said Cassandra Kwon, a researcher at the Wilson College of Textiles at North Carolina State University, one of the two primary investigators of the study. “They are given a set of gear that, even if it doesn’t fit right or even if they have limitations with mobility, they just deal with, because they have duties to perform, and this is all they have to work with.”

Over the course of more than two years, Kwon, along with Meredith McQuerry, a textile researcher at Florida State University, conducted extensive surveys, focus groups, and interviews with both firefighters and personal protective equipment (PPE) manufacturers to understand their experiences, and the challenges both have faced as wearers and makers of PPE for women. Kwon and McQuerry then conducted nearly 200 body scans of female structural and wildland firefighters—the first large-scale data set of its kind focused exclusively on measuring and sizing the female form in the fire service. The work uncovered fundamental flaws in how women’s PPE is designed, and how female firefighters are fitted for gear by their departments. The researchers also pointed to potential issues with sizing requirements in the NFPA standards that govern structural and wildland firefighting PPE.

Women firefighters in structural and wildland firefighting say they struggle to find personal protective equipment that fits. At right, a female firefighter at the Orange County (Florida) Fire Rescue. The department uses certified gear technicians to custom fit each firefighter for their PPE during recruit orientation. Since the department began the practice, satisfaction with PPE fit has improved  dramatically for both men and women, according to Lauraleigh Avery, a division chief with the department. GETTY/COURTESY OF ORANGE COUNTY FIRE RESCUE

All of those factors contribute to what is a troubling picture, the researchers said. About 80 percent of the 2,000 female structural and wildland firefighters surveyed as part of the study reported that their turnout suits were not female-specific sizes, and about the same percentage said that they were never even measured before being issued the gear. Fewer than half of the firefighters surveyed said their turnout suit fits “well.”
The study’s findings also support previous research indicating that PPE fit issues result in women firefighters having a 33 percent higher risk of being injured on the job. In the focus groups that researchers held, women responders described having to constantly adjust garments or hike up their pants to perform basic tasks like stepping up onto a fire apparatus, climbing a ladder, or executing routine movements like squatting, kneeling, or bending over.

“I have to hike up my bunker pants so high that my bunker coat covers all the pockets in my pants. I have to uncinch my breathing apparatus to hike up my jacket to get to my pants pocket. You don’t have time to do that in a life- threatening situation.”  

–Structural firefighter, from the Fire Protection Research Foundation survey on female firefighter PPE

Aside from causing women to expend more effort on basic tasks and increasing physiological stress, these mobility issues can also impact job performance and exacerbate stereotypes that women cannot perform as well as men on the fireground, woman firefighters interviewed said. Alarmingly, between 15 and 21 percent of women surveyed admitted they at least sometimes intentionally leave off parts of their PPE ensemble, such as turnout coats, because they restrict mobility and affect their job performance.
“We found that female firefighters in general have to think about and do their jobs differently from their male counterparts because of this ill-fitting gear,” said McQuerry, who holds a Ph.D. in textile technology management and is an expert on textile testing and performance. “In some cases, they can’t even access their pockets to get to lifesaving tools in a timely manner because their coats or pants are too long. Hearing those specific day-to-day examples—how women are not just uncomfortable but are unable to do their jobs to the point that it’s putting them at increased physical risk—further confirms the importance of the research.”

Growing ranks, 
growing awareness

One obvious explanation for most of these shortcomings is that women have historically made up just a tiny fraction of the firefighting workforce, a field that has been dominated by men. As such, much of the funding for PPE research and design—as well as the lion's share of the associated sales—has been geared toward men. This male-centric focus has historically also extended to attitudes in many fire departments, adding another layer of complication to getting women fitted correctly, said Lauraleigh Avery, who started as a firefighter with Orange County (Florida) Fire Rescue in 1991 and is now its division chief for emergency management.
“When women were starting out in this field, I think many departments thought, ‘Oh, they’ll try it out and leave,’” Avery said. “In some departments, I even know of women whose coworkers basically ran them off. If that’s the attitude, of course they’re not going to make a lot of changes or accommodations for women. When I first started, most stations didn’t even have a women’s bathroom.”

“I detest my wildland gear with a fiery, burning passion. It doesn’t fit at all, the pants are uncomfortable— they don’t really give us women’s-cut pants or even an option. The men’s small doesn’t fit my hips or butt so that’s a problem. The wildland gear could use a lot of improvement.”  

–Wildland firefighter

But times have changed. When Avery joined Orange County Fire Rescue 30 years ago, there were barely 10 female firefighters in the ranks. Today, she said, there are nearly 100, making up about 7 percent of the department. Nationwide, similar trends have seen the total female firefighter population climb to nearly 90,000, or 9 percent of the estimated 1.1 million career and volunteer firefighters in the US, according to NFPA statistics. As recently as 2017, women made up just 7 percent of the US fire service.

“There’s definitely been an evolution in understanding that women are here to stay,” Avery said. “Now we need to make sure that women have the tools they need to do the job, just like men do.”
When it comes to PPE for women, however, progress has been slow and uneven. One key step came in 2000, when the standard governing structural firefighting PPE in the US, NFPA 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, began requiring that manufacturers offer women-specific patterns and sizes. Of the seven manufacturers who participated in interviews for the FPRF study, four said they offer specific female sizing options; the others believe they properly outfit female firefighters through custom sizing, the study said.
On closer inspection, though, “specific female sizing” can be a tricky term. Researchers in the FPRF study found that, rather than using female-specific cuts and designs, some manufacturers’ female gear is merely sized-down patterns designed for men; other gear-makers may use what they describe as  “female-specific” patterns, but most aren’t based on body measurement data taken from actual female firefighters. Instead, many manufacturers use anthropomorphic data based on an “average” US female or generated by the US military.
“We talked to many different manufacturers, and I think there’s still a misconception in the industry that custom sizing equals appropriate fit,” McQuerry said. “Unfortunately, if you’re starting from the wrong foundation—for example, a male pattern—you can custom size that, you can change the sleeve length, you can change as much as you want, but it’s never going to fit a female properly in most cases.”

“When I try to get on ladders, it just takes me a second more because of how long my pants are in the crotch. When I’m standing the pants get stuck, so it’s hard for me to move my knee up.”

—Structural firefighter

A study published last November in Fashion and Textiles, an industry journal, sheds some light on women’s frustrating experiences with fitting, even when they are “custom” measured. For the project, a cadre of researchers from universities in the US surveyed more than 30 female firefighters, examined NFPA PPE standards, and looked at manufacturing and firehouse sizing practices to determine how each factor contributes to fit problems for female firefighters. The most common method used to fit structural firefighters for coats, pants, boots, and gloves is for a manufacturer’s representative or station manager to size a firefighter in person at a firehouse, the researchers found. The body measurements taken in person are then compared to a sizing chart to determine what size PPE to order. Generally, though, “this effort did not result in better-fitting gear for women,” the study’s authors concluded, because of “a disconnect between the measurements used for sizing and the measurements needed for product development.”

In other words, the sizing charts for women used by manufacturers—influenced in part by design guidelines in NFPA 1971—did not correspond to well-fitting turnout coats, pants, boots, and gloves, even when the women were carefully measured, according to the researchers.
One female firefighter interviewed for the study told researchers that her experience being fitted by a local PPE representative was frustrating because her measurements didn’t correspond to any available combination of sizes. During fitting, she said, if women have issues about gear not fitting correctly, or if they say they are unable to find the appropriate size, the not-so-subtle message they get is ‘tough luck.’ “The reps say, ‘Sorry about that, that’s all we have,’” the firefighter told the researchers. “I’m a fairly average-size person in general, but I have a very long torso and wider hips [and] I need a shorter coat to make sure I don’t literally catch when I’m bending down.” Landing at the proper size means juggling a number of other variables, including chest size and sleeve length, and the results are rarely satisfactory. “They’re not tailored to female bodies at all,” she said.

When interviewed during the FPRF study, manufacturers listed several reasons why getting female-specific patterns right has been difficult, including economic and production challenges. Despite recent gains, women still make up a small fraction of the overall market for firefighting PPE, and some manufacturers say that creating new lines for women could double production time and labor and decrease efficiency, especially since curved seams, which are present in women’s patterns, are more complicated to produce. “There are definitely barriers to designing and making these products...and then making it something that these people can turn around and afford,” one manufacturer told researchers. “That’s already a challenge in the market, let alone with the segment of female customers that is much smaller.”

Others pointed out possible issues with NFPA standards, which they say limit innovation and the types of garments they are allowed to make, especially regarding wildland clothing. Critics point to NFPA 1977, Standard on Protective Clothing and Equipment for Wildland Fire Fighting and Urban Interface Fire Fighting, which governs sizing requirements for wildland gear and includes a sizing chart with specific lengths and circumference measurements for a variety of garments for sizes ranging from XS to XL—and it’s that specificity that can result in problems, they say.

“The restrictive sizing charts in the standard are the biggest hinderance for us,” says Koreana Hallam, a cofounder of Green Buffalow, a company that has been designing and manufacturing female-specific wildland firefighting clothing since 2020. “I think currently they really limit innovation and creativity, because there are multiple measurement points that start at a certain number and you can’t go any smaller. The problem is, if you start with a measurement point that is too big for one part of the garment, it affects all the others and everything else will look and fit a little funny.”

“You just kind of guesstimate and pick your evil, whether it’s too long but fits in the shoulders or too short but fits you somewhere else.”

—Wildland firefighter on fitting

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to achieving better fitting female gear, however, is something that seems, from the outside at least, to be maddeningly obvious and simple to fix. Despite decades of progress for women in the fire service, there’s still currently no substantive data sets detailing the body shapes, sizes, and dimensions of female firefighters. This fact alone makes it difficult to properly design and pattern female turnout and wildland gear, even if the will and money are there to do so, researchers said. “Even those manufacturers who have wanted to make better gear specifically tailored for the female form have historically struggled to do so because they just didn’t have the anthropometric data—it didn’t exist,” McQuerry said.

This lack of data makes manufacturers hesitant to invest time and resources into developing female patterns, which could be based on faulty assumptions. “Years ago, we did look at going to a female pattern and what we found is [that] we couldn’t,” one manufacturer told the researchers. “There wasn’t enough data out there to give us good insight as to what that pattern should be, because if you look at the general population of females—is that really a representation of the female firefighter community?” 

The path forward
From the outset, Kwon and McQuerry knew that they wanted their research project to go beyond simply outlining the problem—they wanted it to be part of fixing it.

All of their interviews indicated that manufacturers lacked anthropometric data for female firefighters, and so, despite a global pandemic significantly slowing things down, they went out and gathered the data themselves, using a mobile body scan tool that works on a typical smart phone.
“It was really important for us to have something that was convenient because we needed to collect as many measurements from as many participants as possible, all while working remotely from two separate locations,” Kwon said.
They settled on a mobile technology called MeThreeSixty, which let them use their phones to scan nearly 200 structural and wildland female firefighters from different angles. Their measurements—including waist, hip, stomach, thigh, calf, total body surface area, and other variables—were uploaded to a cloud database for analysis. The women firefighters who volunteered to be measured hailed from across the country; a large portion of the scanning was done at an annual Women in Fire conference, but much of it was also completed at local departments, including in Orange County, where Avery enthusiastically recruited women in the department to participate.
“I spoke to local fire chiefs and to the women to make sure they understood what we were trying to do and how important it was for them to participate,” Avery said. “Because without this data, we really can’t move forward to make sure that this important change occurs.”

What resulted from those efforts is “to our knowledge, the largest and most comprehensive database of female firefighter-specific anthropometrics that exists,” McQuerry said.

As part of their research, McQuerry and Kwon photographed and measured female firefighters in their ill-fitting protective clothing (left). At right, data from body scans was used to visually plot the differences in body shape and proportions between a male (upper figures) and female (lower figures) wearing both thin base layers  and a thick turnout suit. The schematic “identifies the need for garments that are designed with proportionate patterns to fit different body types based on sex,” McQuerry said. COURTESY OF McQUERRY AND KWON

Processing and analyzing the data continues, but already important insights have emerged, including major issues with the sizing requirements in NFPA 1977, the standard for wildland protective clothing. “In general, what we are finding is that between 25 percent and 90 percent of our participants are not falling anywhere in the size ranges included in NFPA 1977, and many are falling far below, meaning that the garments are oversized, even if they are wearing an extra small,” McQuerry said. The biggest problem areas for wildland garments were sleeve length, inseam, and chest circumference.

Researchers also uncovered potential issues with sizing charts in NFPA 1971—primarily with pant inseam and coat chest circumference—but overall, the standard’s sizing charts for structural firefighting are less restrictive than those in NFPA 1977.

There’s a significant difference in how the two standards handle coat and pants sizing requirements, explained Jeffrey Stull, a PPE consultant and researcher who has sat on the NFPA PPE standards committees for 40 years. Both documents contain sizing charts, which provide manufacturers with the minimum and maximum size parameters they must offer for men’s and women’s coats and trousers, as well as the minimum increments in sizes that must be made available, Stull said. NFPA 1971, however, does not restrict manufacturers from going outside these ranges, in part because structural turnout gear is measured to an individual. “It’s like going in to get measured for a suit,” Stull said. “The manufacturer has a system where they measure body dimensions for the person, and that’s the case for the majority of gear. There’s really no impediment in sizing and fit included in NFPA 1971—the fit really comes down to how the manufacturer designs the clothing.”

Wildland sizing charts in NFPA 1977, however, are more comprehensive and more or less fixed. Additionally, the document distinguishes between men’s and women’s sizes only when it comes to pants sizing—other garments are considered unisex. NFPA 1977 is currently in cycle, and the findings in the Kwon–McQuerry report, as well as the sizing charts in general, have been the subject of “intense debate over the last few weeks,” Stull said. The conversation has focused on changing sizing guidance to be more focused on body dimensions rather than on garment dimensions.

“We’re seeing a lot more women in the fire service, and they just kind of resign themselves to the fact that their departments order male-cut gear. They don’t even know there’s an option out there.” 

—PPE manufacturer

McQuerry considers that an important distinction, and it’s something she and Kwon plan to present to the technical committees of both PPE standards. “We’re trying to not just look at isolated measurements, but at the holistic person—it’s not a data point we’re outfitting, it’s a person, right?” she said. “And that’s feedback that we hope the standards committees can find beneficial. Right out of the gate, with the most simplistic initial analysis, we have already found a large discrepancy between sizing requirements and actual data. Certainly, these women’s complaints are valid. And honestly, it’s shocking that there haven’t been more complaints.”

Once their analysis is finished, the researchers say they hope to propose a new sizing system for both structural and wildfire PPE to share with the fire service, manufacturers, and standards developers. They also plan to share their anthropometric data sets with manufacturers in the hope it will help them design better clothing.

“My jacket has no cut for my hips, and I have to hike it up to get to anything in my pockets. The sleeves are too long. It’s an off-the-shelf men’s cut. The crotch on the pants is halfway down my thighs. I feel like I’m wearing a diaper.”

—Wildland firefighter

In the future, Kwon and McQuerry are determined to expand their research to include other types of PPE, including hoods, gloves, boots, and equipment such as self-contained breathing apparatus. Interviews in the FPRF study, as well as in other studies, including the one published in Fashion and Textiles, uncovered numerous complaints from women about these items as well. Anecdotes include gloves that are too big to grasp tools effectively, boots that are merely smaller versions of those made for men, and SCBA bottles that are so big that they hit female firefighters in the back of the head as they climb ladders and perform other tasks.
“We’ve only really just started,” McQuerry said. “Ultimately, we want to address the full PPE ensemble for women in the fire service and make prototypes so we can get them on women and get their feedback. We need to see what they think because that’s all that matters at the end of the day.”

That vision for a female-specific PPE ensemble is still very much aspirational. But for women like Fitzgerald-McGowan, who for years struggled in vain just to find a single pair of wildland pants that didn’t make her uncomfortable, the work being done now is a huge step forward. “This is a problem that’s been discussed for a long time, and the frustration out there among women in the profession has been building,” she said. “When I was a wildland firefighter, I could voice complaint, but at the end of the day there wasn’t a lot that could be done. It’s great to see that things might be changing.”

Beyond that, Avery says, serious efforts to finally improve PPE fit for women will help erase the hard-to-ignore signal that ill-fitting gear has sent to generations of female firefighters: that they aren’t as important or as worth investing in as their male counterparts. “Being involved in this project, we have sent a clear message that people matter, and that females belong here in the fire service,” she said. “Women and men alike can do this job.” 

Jesse Roman is senior editor of NFPA Journal and producer of the NFPA Podcast. Top photograph: Getty Images