Researcher looks to make firefighters' work a bit easier

Matt Richmond
January 18, 2013

New York State first responders have had plenty of opportunity to put their training to the test over the past two years during extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy and Tropical Storms Lee and Irene. Now researchers are hoping to make their challenging job easier starting from the ground up.

"Ready, go..."

Tyler Hale is a 25-year-old volunteer firefighter with the Cayuga Heights Fire Department. Wires connecting small plastic sensors snake up his arms and legs and down his back.

Huiju Park, an assistant professor at Cornell is directing Hale, while recording his movements on a laptop."The system keeps checking and recording the continuous change in range in motion at each joint."

Park's goal is to test the difference between the rubber boots commonly used by firefighters and leather ones. Eventually Hale climbs into his firefighting gear and slips on his boots, the rubber ones first.

"Ready, go..."

As Hale walks around the room, Park watches an avatar mimic the firefighter's movements on a monitor. A column on the right hand side shows the data collected by those plastic sensors.

So far, he's found the leather boot can support a wider range of motion than the rubber one. And that, says Park, can make a big difference for a firefighter. "People tend to believe that, number one, injuries for firefighters is probably burn injury, but surprisingly it's not the truth."

 In fact, it's not even close. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 22% of the injuries to firefighters each year are from burns or smoke inhalation while 40% are from things like muscle strains and pain.

These are the sorts of injuries that better equipment might help to prevent.
According to the firefighter Hale, he could tell which boot was better right away.
 "Putting on those leather boots is like putting on a pair of running shoes."

It doesn't take a mountain of data and painstaking research to figure out that firefighter's gear makes the person carrying it sore. But besides the predictable neck and back pain that results from carrying an air tank, Park says the body responds to weight in some other, less obvious ways.

When a person straps on an air tank or any heavy weight on their back, they lean forward to keep their center of gravity in line with their legs.

 "That is actually natural body adaptation to prevent injuries, but if you stay in that posture for a long time, your lower back stretches the disk and finally, over time, you will have lower back pain."says Park.

A good shoe can help by absorbing more of the ground's impact.

Rubber boots are still much more common among firefighters, according to Hale, because they cost about $200 less than the leather ones. But they might be worth the extra cost to a town or city.

According to a Department of Commerce study, firefighter injuries cost anywhere from 2.8 to 7.8 billion every year when you factor in worker's comp, long-term care costs and lost productivity.