Women Firefighters & Protective Gear: Data from 1995 WFS Survey


Women in the Fire Service, Inc., conducts a national survey of fire service women every five years. One of the topics on which data was gathered in the 1995 survey -- from 495 women active in fire suppression -- was firefighter protective gear. The following is a report on that data.

Women firefighters continue to experience problems with getting firefighting gear that fits properly. Comparison of data from nationwide surveys done by WFS in 1990 and 1995 show the problem is actually getting worse. Only in one area (turnout/bunker coats) did women report fewer fit problems in 1995 than in 1990.

The items of protective gear most commonly creating fit problems were:

Item % of respondents reporting fit problems
Firefighting gloves 31%
Rubber firefighting boots 19%
Turnout/bunker coat 16%
Turnout/bunker pants 14%
SCBA facepiece 14%
Helmet 13%
SCBA harness/pack 9%
Nomex/PBI hood 2%

In addition, 20% of women responding to the survey said they could not fasten the lowest hook on their turnout/bunker coat. Several noted that they could not use the pockets of their turnout coat or pants, either at all or when wearing an SCBA.

Gear interface posed another area of problems: 31% of the women said their SCBA bottle routinely knocked their helmet forward or off. Others noted the SCBA facepiece pushed the helmet back, or that the helmet compromised the facepiece seal.

The underlying cause of many fit problems for women continues to be that protective gear is designed for the male body, not the female. Coats are routinely too big in the shoulders and too tight in the hips. Pants are too big in the waist, too tight in the hips and thighs. Helmets are too big, even with ratcheted adjusting systems. Boots are too big, and are poorly proportioned. Gloves are too big, too long in the fingers and too bulky. SCBA facepieces are too wide, and not available to fit a range of face shapes and sizes: some manufacturers still make only one size.

Fire departments vary in their responsiveness to complaints of gear fit problems from women firefighters. In many cases, lengthy delays in delivery of properly sized gear results in women wearing poorly fitting items for years. Many women firefighters feel constrained by time delays simply to "make do" with protective gear that is unfomfortable, inhibits their movements, falls off, leaks or is otherwise unsafe.

Survey Data on Firefighter Protective Gear

According to the data from WFS' 1995 survey of fire service women, women firefighters continue to have difficulty getting protective gear and clothing that fit properly. While manufacturers over the past five years have seemed to be responding to the increasing demand for women's fire gear, comparisons with data from WFS' 1990 survey show the problem, surprisingly, is getting worse instead of better.

Five years previously, 51% of women firefighters had problems with gear fit. In 1995, 58% -- 287 out of the 495 women in suppression roles responding to the survey -- were functioning in their jobs with one or more items of protective gear that did not fit. Of the 42% who said all their fire gear fit, some added comments such as:

"But only after ten years of problems, memos, letters."
"Took over eight years to get a SCBA facepiece to fit."
"Have been fighting for women's uniforms for fifteen years!"
"They only fit satisfactorily now because we made such an issue."
"It is all brand new and fits because I voiced disapproval."

Several women noted they had finally had to pay for some or all of their own gear in order to get it to fit.

Following is a list of the items causing the most problems, the percentage of women experiencing problems with each item, and some of the women's comments about the gear and their attempts to get a better fit. All percentages have increased since 1990 except for two categories: the fit of turnout/bunker coats showed a moderate improvement, and the percentage of women whose bunker pants did not fit stayed the same.

Firefighting gloves: 31% of women firefighters said theirs did not fit (as compared to 25% in the 1990 survey).

43% of these women said their gloves were too big.

"Size small is too large" was a frequent comment; also that smalls were "never available." A few noted that the smallest size (small or extra-small) was too small, while the next larger size was too big.

13% (of the 31%) said the fingers of their gloves were too long.

10% commented that the gloves were too bulky or thick; that it was difficult to grip things or otherwise work while wearing the gloves.

"The problem is inherent to all firefighting gloves: too thick; no flexibility."

Other fit problems:

"I've tried all manufacturers: none fit. A man's hand is about 2/3 palm and 1/3 fingers; a woman's is half and half."

"I have wide hands and short fingers. This is not an option in current sizes."

"I have long, narrow hands. Smalls are too short; anything else is too wide. I've spent 16 years trying to get gloves to fit."

Because gloves wear out or are damaged more often than other items of protective gear, being able to get replacements that fit is also a concern: "Mine have holes in them; I was told women's sizes are not available. But my old ones are women's!"

Rubber firefighting boots: 19% (13% in 1990)

40% of these women had boots that were too big.

"Size 5 men's is all the department will buy."

"Department will not order women's sizes."

"Men's boots, bought much too large: fall off when crawling."

"I was given the smallest in the department; still too big."

"Men's size 4 is too large; department says that's as small as they come."

Several women resorted to wearing extra socks to fill up the extra room in their boots: one said she wore five pairs.

13% said their boots were too wide in the foot or the heel. One woman who had been a career firefighter for ten years said of her boots: "They do not fit in length or width. Very uncomfortable; fall off in fires if not held on by bent feet."

Several women noted that boots in half sizes would be helpful.

Several others commented that if the boots were small enough to fit in the foot, they were too tight in the calf, or too short in overall height.

"Size 5 fits feet, but way too tight around calves."

"If short enough in length, too short in height."

"Tops hit me in the middle of the calf."

"Women's boots are like 'go-go' boots -- too short."

One woman noted a particular safety problem for apparatus drivers: "While driving (using clutch), top of boot gets caught under the seat."

Turnout/bunker coat: 16% (down from 19% in 1990)

More than a quarter of the women whose coats didn't fit (27%) said their coat was too long; 20% said it was too big.

"Too long when closed -- difficult stepping up ladder, etc."

"Hangs past my knees."

"Old style rubber coat, much too large. Sleeves drop over fingertips, hem comes halfway between knees and ankles. No other sizes available."

Another 27% said their coat was too narrow in the hips. Women whose coats did fit through the hips often reported it was then too big in the chest, shoulders or sleeves.

"Hips too small, arms too long."

"Too tight around hips; can't buckle last buckle."

"Can't buckle last two buckles, or I can't lift my legs."

"Too much shoulder, not enough hips. I never hook the bottom hook."

"If it fits through shoulders, too narrow through hips if pockets full.

"Made to fit shoulders; too narrow in hips."

"Hip and interior pockets useless."

"Too big in shoulders."

"Sleeves too long."

Several women noted that their coats didn't fit even though they had been custom made.

In all, 20% of the women responding to the survey said they could not hook the lowest hook on their turnout coat, either at all or when wearing turnout pants.

Turnout/bunker pants: 14% (also 14% in 1990)

30% of the women whose turnout pants didn't fit said the pants were too tight in hips and thighs, or too big in the waist.

"Cut for men: waist too big, to be able to fit my hips."

"To fit hips, they do not fit well otherwise."

19% said their pants were too big. "Two of me can fit in them," one woman said.

14% said their pants were too long, either in overall length or in rise (the measurement from the waist to the top of the inseam).

"Legs still drag no matter how you try to adjust."

"Crotch too low; restricts leg movement."

As with the turnout coats, several women noted that their pants had been custom made and still did not fit.

"Women's custom pair big all over, even though I was measured for them."

One woman had been injured as a result of turnout pants that did not fit properly: "My pants are too big, and got caught in the hose lines; I was dragged down the street by the engine."

SCBA facepiece: 14% (11% in 1990)

More than a third (34%) of the 14% said their facepiece was too big, or leaked at the temples.

"Too wide: hard to get good seal."

"Smaller, slimmer mask not available."

"Doesn't seal properly."

"Too large, even though purchased specially for me."

A few noted that they had been forced to use an uncomfortably small mask because they could not get a proper seal with the next larger size. Several complained about lack of size options from some manufacturers.

"Manufacturer does not make a medium size."

"Facepiece failed testing twice; must be shimmed. Manufacturer only makes one size."

"Spider is too big; does not come in smaller sizes."

Others found the proportions of the mask wrong for them.

"Not long enough for my face."

"Would fit better if it could be narrow. As the sizes get smaller, the facepiece gets shorter. I need one that's narrow but long."

Fourteen percent noted that their facepiece doesn't work well when their face becomes sweaty, or that the facepiece slips when in use.

"Slides off with sweat."

"Slides during fires and then leaks."

"Size small does well until I sweat; then I lose the seal."

"One size only - slips often."

Helmet: 13% (11% in 1990)

Half of these women said their helmet was too big. This was true of helmets with ratchet-type adjustments as well as those without:

"Small head, no ratchet."

"Can sometimes adjust, but easily falls off."

"Falls off when I bend over."

"(Ratchet type): Often falls down into my face, covering my eyes. "

"Too big for my head, even cranked as small as it goes."

"Have it as small as possible; still falls off."

Other women found the helmet's interior shape didn't fit their head.

"I have a very small head, and the band becomes too round when I ratchet it down to fit. Helmet is constantly slipping."

"Just doesn't fit right."

"Slips around no matter how much I tighten it."

"I have very thick hair, and the helmet will not fit correctly."

Other comments:

"Although the suspension gets small enough, the helmet itself is just huge."

"I complained about poor helmet fit many times, to no avail. Finally, I lined it with foam cushion for a better fit."

SCBA harness/pack: 9% (not asked on 1990 survey)

Straps in general were a problem for 20% of women whose SCBA's did not fit:

"Straps constantly loosen up." (Note: several women made this comment, all about the same brand: MSA.)

"Straps are stiff and come off shoulders; too big."

"Straps come forward at shoulder joint and restrict movement."

"Belts are too long: either hang down and catch on things, or I have to tuck them in, which makes quick removal of SCBA hard."

Sixteen percent found the chest straps uncomfortable or poorly designed:

"Chest strap in 'bad' spot."

"Chest strap uncomfortable, especially with PASS device."

Twelve percent said the waist strap would not adjust adequately: "Hard to get waist belt tight enough."

Frame design was a problem for another 20%:

"Hangs off back wrong; I can't put my head up when crawling."

"Backpack lumbar support designed for a larger person's back."

"Much too long in the frame to fit my back."

"Back piece is too long for my height."

"Sits wrong and doesn't distribute weight properly."

Nomex/PBI hood: 2% (not asked on 1990 survey)

Even a piece of protective clothing as simple to design as a hood does not always fit.

"Too loose at face opening."

"Not long enough."

"Too big."

"One size does not fit all: slides down over my eyes."

General comments about gear fit and design:

"All gear/clothing made to fit male body, not female."

"Would like weight of turnout gear on hips instead of shoulders."

"With Federal wildland equipment, it's not a gender problem. The gear isn't right for anyone!"

Gear interface problems:

Nearly a third of the women responding to the survey (31%) reported that their SCBA knocks their helmet forward or off. One noted that this was a problem for male firefighters on her department as well, and a few felt it was a function of the long rear brim of specific styles of helmet. The problem, however, exists with all styles, and has much to do with how the SCBA frame and bottle fit a shorter firefighter's body.

Many women wrote in other gear interface problems they had experienced. Several women noted that they couldn't use the pockets of their turnout coat or pants when wearing an SCBA. The helmet/SCBA interface was a problem not only regarding the bottle, but also the facepiece: "SCBA mask pushes helmet back on head; helmet not very secure over it." And the reverse was also true for one woman: "Facepiece seal compromised when helmet is on."

Another point of interface that caused problems was at the wrist. "Coat wrist cuff loses elasticity and doesn't allow glove/cuff overlap." And the reverse: "Long coat sleeves push gloves off."

Resolving gear fit problems

76% of the women responding to the survey said they had advised their fire department of current or past problems with gear fit. Twelve percent said they had not advised their department.

23% of women who had advised their department of gear fit problems said the department took care of the problem(s) promptly. "After a letter from an attorney," one woman noted. But even for these women, fit problems sometimes remained: one problem was fixed but not others, or the situation was only improved, not resolved.

31% said the department eventually took care of the problem, with "eventually" ranging from a short time to more than ten years. 12% said the department made a good-faith effort but got no results:

"Bought from manufacturer advertised as selling women's gear - but they only added a cinch strap to bunker pants fitted for men."

"Ordered small gloves - still too big."

18% said the department made a token effort at resolving the problem, with no results. 13% said the department had refused to order gear that might fit from a different manufacturer. "City contract bidding requires he who is cheapest wins," one woman pointed out.

Another 13% were told by their department it would cost too much money to take care of the problem. "They said they had made a 'good deal' with the company on men's turnouts, so no women's were ordered."

19% of the women said their department was still working on the problem:

"I was fitted for new gear two years ago. Gear came in and was still too large. Working on ordering a different type from a different company."

"'Still working on it' will go on forever."

Women's comments about working with fire departments and manufacturers to get better fitting gear:

"I waited two years (before bringing up the issue) because I didn't want to seem like a complainer."

"(I was) told: 'Too bad, deal with it.'"

"They told me to grow."

"The department told me the manufacturer said all my gear was either a women's cut, or no women's cut was available."

"The problem with my facepiece was totally ignored for years, despite efforts on my part to get information about options. The problem with the gloves was eventually addressed, but the gloves still don't fit. The department is more responsive to complaints about gear fit than it used to be, but still addresses such problems at their convenience."

"Their response was to give me new gloves with the same problem as my old ones."

"Currently, because we are in negotiations with the department to settle a complaint made by the women, the department is holding the issue of bunker gear hostage and will do nothing about it until we settle."

"It took 18 months to get my turnout gear. The sleeves were about 8 inches too short, turnout pants about 4 inches too long, suspenders were unable to get short enough. The pants were way too huge all around. Finally got the fit okay, but the coat doesn't buckle, and I'm still waiting on shorter suspenders -- due to the only 'okay' fit of the pants, the suspenders are critical. But at what point does insisting on further adjustment and alteration become whining?"


  • Much of firefighters' protective gear is still made on men's patterns with no, minimal, or ineffective adjustments for women.
  • What a manufacturer makes is not always really available to the firefighter: time delays in getting gear that fits, or quantity discounts on men's gear, mean women will end up with gear that doesn't fit. There also appear to be communications problems among firefighters, their departments, manufacturers' representatives and the manufacturers themselves.
  • Fire departments do not always make properly fitting protective gear for all personnel a priority, or sometimes even a concern.
  • Nine out of ten women firefighters have had problems with protective gear fit at some point in their career or volunteer service. 75% of women firefighters have forwarded a complaint about gear fit issues to their departments. Only half of these have had the problem taken care of "promptly" or "eventually," and "eventually" in some cases has meant many years.
  • One in seven women firefighters has not let their department know their gear or uniforms do not fit properly. This is a judgement call, weighing the level of discomfort or hazard against factors such as the department's finances ("Small volunteer department does the best they can"), the risk of being labeled a complainer, and the likelihood that the problem can be resolved ("Some of the gear doesn't fit anyone").
Copyright © 1996, 2004 Women in the Fire Service, Inc., and may not be reprinted without permission.




© 2006 Women in the Fire Service, Inc.

Site design by Duckhouse Designs, LLC

Online store powered by osCommerce