A lack of diversity within the fire services has been a topic of growing importance for many years now, and our industry is working hard to investigate the specific causes at play, and what potential solutions will attract more women, ethnic and other minority groups to the profession.
As of March 2021, women made up 7.5% of the UK fire and rescue service (FRS), increasing from 5% five years before. The proportion of firefighters from ethnic minorities, meanwhile, made up 4.7% of the service, compared with 3.8% five years before1.
Clearly there is some considerable way to go with change being slow, and as in any industry, increased diversity and better representing the communities that are served can only be a good thing for FRSs and communities alike. Manufacturers have a key role to play here too. If one of the barriers is that individuals are physically, ergonomically, or perhaps even culturally challenged by the equipment they are provided with, then it is up to those manufacturers to develop solutions that will support increased diversity and inclusivity.
One size fits all?
There is a school of thought that says manufacturers should be solely concentrating on making equipment smaller or lighter or simply a better generic fit for the benefit of all firefighters, and of course there is merit in this thinking. These are certainly areas that Dräger has and is continuing to work on. But we also need to delve deeper to find out what barriers there are outside of weight, size and fit – in order that we can specifically meet the variety of needs and demands.
It is not, for example, about finding a solution for women and a separate one for men, but rather that we understand that in a group of men there will be a lower proportion of equipment not suited to them than there would be in an all-female group. We are looking for solutions that meet those peripheries, regardless of gender – including individuals of specific ethnic minorities.
It is important to note that when considering what barriers minorities might face when using medical and safety technology, that we are not only talking about attracting a diverse workforce but also addressing selection, retention, development, specialist roles and promotion.
For instance, if minority groups see the job as unattractive due to physical challenges that equipment and clothing presents, then we can develop our products to address those risks, concerns and perceptions. It is also crucial that we help FRSs to communicate those solutions – not only when portraying the image of a firefighter but also during the initial interview and selection process, then throughout a firefighter’s full employment – where concerns and perceptions can change as people age and have families.
An added challenge is the emerging expectation that the firefighter will work longer in their career, meaning that the effects of physiological ageing will be seen to have a greater impact on all individuals in their later years as they reach retirement.
For example, there are gender-specific issues related to fertility, pregnancy and menopause that need to be considered when attracting and encouraging women to join and stay in the firefighting profession. The physicality of the profession, as well as the potential for exposure to contaminants and extremes such as radiation pose obvious concerns around fertility and pregnancy. It is also the case that while all people naturally lose strength as they get older, the menopause can have a dramatic impact on muscle mass and strength. For women to know that their industry understands this element of a woman’s life is important, and that equipment is developed with this understanding in mind. A diverse fire industry also needs to see PPE and face masks of breathing apparatus suited to people observing religious practices, i.e. the wearing of religious headwear or having facial hair.
Ergonomics, adjustability and intuitive design
Ergonomics literally means the study of people’s efficiency in their working environment. With regards to firefighting, it relates to ensuring that equipment protects the back and joints and doesn’t put undue strain on the individual wearer. An ergonomic consideration for firefighters also needs to address the way equipment is stored and carried. We need to consider where a shorter body, for example, may be carrying the load differently and therefore how mechanical advantage designs should be utilised to ensure effects of load are reduced, and operational tools suit the widest possible range of ergonomics.
Adjustability of equipment is also vital, not only to account for firefighters’ physical requirements but also for differing environments, so that equipment can be adjusted easily, quickly and properly, especially when every second counts. PPE does not only protect the wearer’s skeletal and muscular systems but also needs to support safe freedom of movement.
Where fire services are becoming more multicultural, language barriers can pose challenges. In these scenarios, and when potentially life-saving jobs need to be executed at speed, there is no room for complicated equipment that requires extensive instructions for operation. Equipment must be intuitive, simple to use and easily comprehensible. This makes equipment more effective, both for training and when attending real incidents.
Dräger’s PSS AirBoss is a case in point for design based on modern and diverse firefighter requirements. It has been ten years in development, during which time we have utilised medical, physiological and safety expertise and thoroughly tested technology. We have used not only our direct relationships with the UK fire services and global expert third parties including universities but also our support of emergency events such as Grenfell and the Salisbury poisonings to make sure PSS AirBoss has been designed with incident experience in mind.
The Type 4 Nano cylinder provides a continued market leading reduction in cylinder weight, meaning it is significantly lighter than existing SCBA cylinders. State-of-the-art ergonomics is another vital feature, with improved wearer comfort achieved by shifting the centre of gravity relationship between the human body and the set thereby creating a ventilated space behind the SCBA backplate to assist reduction in thermal build up for the wearer. It is also improved through a sliding and pivoting waist belt with an additional three-step height backplate providing adjustments to address differing torso heights and ensuring it is not compromising protection provided by the tunic/leggings of the PPE.
PSS AirBoss’s weight is carried by the legs and pelvis rather than the shoulders and back. This not only improves personal comfort but also enhances mobility within confined spaces, while descending ladders and stairwells, and in any situation which requires a high level of mobility such as working in close proximity to a casualty.
PSS AirBoss’s improvements reduce firefighters’ physical stress, which in turn reduces the risk of strain-related injuries and fatigue when wearing the set operationally, as well as extending potential working duration due to reduced physical exertion. This brings the added benefit of protecting the physiology of the firefighter throughout their career and beyond.
It is critical that we, as manufacturers, work with national and international Standards agencies to achieve a joined-up approach to future product development. This will help to ensure that Standards take account of all stakeholders and are written with on-the-ground, diverse experiences in mind, enabling us to stay ahead of the game rather than try to adapt existing Standards to the barriers we already know are in place.
Another area where we continue to serve a diverse firefighting workforce is our recent Health for the Firefighter survey, conducted with UK Fire, which asks questions on age, gender and ethnicity. The results will provide a wide range of views and perceptions, and therefore further our understanding on how we can account for them in product design.
Our overriding goal as manufacturers, in everything that we do, is to further the health and safety of firefighters and others working in high-risk environments. And in an industry where a split second can be the difference between life and death, these advancements which take into account our diverse workforce, are crucial to furthering that goal to benefit everyone in our community.
For more information, go to www.draeger.com/en_uk