To do that safely, students need to wear the right personal protective equipment, or PPE. Fire PPE includes clothing made of Nomex, a flame-resistant material, as well as all-leather gloves and specialized fire boots.
Any student majoring in forest resources and conservation at the University of Florida must take a hands-on fire ecology course that requires PPE, said Crandall, an assistant professor in the UF/IFAS School of Forest, Fisheries, and Geomatics Sciences, which recently launched an undergraduate certificate program in fire ecology and management.
For some students, getting ahold of the right PPE is a challenge.
“Firefighting is a male-dominated field, and much of the available gear is sized with that average user in mind. Many women have a hard time finding items that are the right size, but well-fitting gear is critical to learning and working safely on the fire line,” Crandall said.
Wearing pants that are too long or boots that are too big increases the chances of tripping or falling. Oversized gloves reduce grip and dexterity. And students are more likely to be distracted if they have to keep adjusting any ill-fitting clothing.
“If we go out on a burn and there is not enough appropriately sized PPE, some students will need to trade off using the gear. So, while one student is getting hands-on experience, another is waiting on the sidelines for their turn. It’s really unfortunate because it means these students are only getting part of all the course has to offer,” Crandall said.
Finding equipment that is the right size isn’t the only hurdle students face, she said.
“Fire PPE is expensive, and PPE designed for women is even more expensive. Fire boots, for example, can cost several hundred dollars. For some students, these costs may not economically feasible,” Crandall said.
But she and others in her field are finding solutions.
“Over time, I’ve built up UF’s supply of PPE that students can use, and I also work with a local network whose members loan each other different sized PPE,” Crandall said. She has also started a fire boot donation program that has collected more than 20 pairs of boots, which students can check out as needed.
Crandall even learned to tailor and repair Nomex clothing herself. “Over the last few years, I have learned how to replace broken zippers, hem pant legs, and take in and let out Nomex pants,” she said.
“Ultimately, I want any student to be able to take our classes without worrying about whether they can afford the equipment or find something in their size,” Crandall said. “We are currently looking into ways to get more PPE donated or set up a fund to support student access to PPE.”
Crandall noted that while most wildland fire crews are majority men, women are becoming more common in the field of prescribed fire management.
“When I was on a firefighting crew out west, I was one of two women on a team of 21. It’s important that we increase opportunities for women who can then go on to become role models for others,” Crandall said.
Want to learn more about supporting access to fire PPE at UF? Contact Rae Crandall at firstname.lastname@example.org.