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 and Huiju Park, an assistant professor at Cornell University, directs Hale through a series of movements.
The sensors send data about Hale's movements to Huiju's laptop.
"The system keeps checking and recording the continuous change in range in motion at each joint,” says Park.
Park’s goal is to test the different ways the body reacts to the rubber boots commonly used by firefighters compared to leather ones. Eventually, Hale climbs into his firefighting gear and slips on his boots, the rubber ones first.
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,” says Park.
In fact, it’s not even close. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 22 percent of the injuries to firefighters each year are from burns or smoke inhalation while 40 percent are from things like muscle strains and pain.
These are the sorts of injuries that better equipment, like leather shoes, might help to prevent.
According to Hale, he could tell which boot was better right away.
“Putting on those leather boots is like putting on a pair of running shoes,” says Hale.
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 the leather boots 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.