CSU students redesign firefighter uniforms to look less cop-like

[masterslider id=”159″]


Students in CSU’s Department of Design and Merchandising came to the aid of Colorado firefighters this spring, creating new uniforms that will differentiate them from police officers — whether they’re at the scene of an emergency or in the grocery store.

Alan Fletcher, chief of the Fairmount Fire Protection District in Golden, approached Associate Professor Juyeon Park about the need for a redesign last fall. The problem is not their firefighting turnout gear, which Park has been working to improve, but the similarities between their navy blue “Class B” uniforms and those that police wear. Confusion between the two has resulted in everything from gunmen taking shots at unarmed firefighters arriving at crime scenes to exasperated mothers warning their children to behave near a firefighter, lest they be sent to jail.

“When you go to a grocery store, sometimes people raise their hands and say, ‘I didn’t do it,’” Fletcher said.

Other improvements

In addition to creating a more distinctive public appearance for the firefighters, the 37 students in Park’s Product Development course were asked to address issues like safety, mobility, functionality and human factors. The class, part of a new concentration in product development launched last fall, offers students a real-world case study in which they apply their creative design, technical and critical thinking skills.

Instructor with students

Members of Park’s class discuss the redesign with firefighters from the Poudre Fire Protection District.

Seven student teams surveyed more than 300 firefighters statewide and held focus groups at stations in the Poudre Fire Protection District and found that about 80 percent of the respondents said they’d experienced public confusion with their current uniform. Teams began developing a new design for consideration by Fletcher and his team.

“This really reaffirmed my passion for my major,” said Nicole Grebb, a member of Team Marvel, which submitted the winning design.

Fletcher visited with the students to explain firefighters’ needs, even bringing a deputy sheriff to one session to show and discuss their uniforms’ similarity.

“It was great to be able to talk to a real client instead of just doing research,” said design student Jessica Marvin of Team Marvel.

“We were able to meet with our demographic,” added team leader Taylor Sloan. “It made it so much more of a real-world experience and something we can take with us in our careers.”

“We had learned so much in class, but actually going through the entire product development process was really interesting,” fellow team member Hailey Pearson said.

Team Marvel is presented with First Place for their redesign of Firefighter uniforms as part of an AM 376 Class project. May 11, 2016
Winning design by Team Marvel

Specific challenges

The uniform redesign also presented specific challenges, since firefighters tend to be pretty conservative about their uniforms, according to Fletcher.

“When you talk about change, firefighters don’t want to hear about it,” he said with a laugh. “But we asked the students, ‘If we’re helping you when you’re having a heart attack, what would you want us to look like?’ We needed to stay professional but unique.”

“I have been working with many industry and community partners for the course, but this design project offered the students a different level of challenge,” Park said. “They were challenged to explore various dimensions of the firefighter’s needs with their uniform, both functional and aesthetic, yet they had to be creative within a limited scope, given the conservative firefighting culture and National Fire Protection Association’s regulations for firefighting personal protective equipment.”

“Firefighters are really proud of their tradition,” added merchandising student Jony Gao, another member of Team Marvel.

When survey results showed some openness to colors like red and black, Team Marvel developed a “Class B” shirt with lines of red piping. They added reflective tape and thread for safety and developed three complete lines of the firefighter’s station uniform for active, casual and semiprofessional functions.

The students said another challenge was keeping the price range of their products competitive with the current market.

“Firefighters are government-funded,” Pearson said. “If you had an unlimited budget, it would be different, but we had to be very cost-effective.”

Designs presented to other chiefs

Fletcher, who is president of the Metro Denver Fire Chiefs Association, plans to present the winning designs to his fellow chiefs in case they want to adopt similar uniform changes.

Team Marvel is presented with First Place for their redesign of Firefighter uniforms as part of an AM 376 Class project. May 11, 2016
Team Marvel is presented with first place for its redesign of the firefighter uniforms.

“I love the work you did,” Fletcher told Park’s class before announcing the winning teams. “We wanted to see something different in our uniforms, but we didn’t know what to do or how to approach it. In the end, we’re probably going to pick something from each of the teams.”

Second place went to Team Fuego, and Park presented special awards to the other five teams in areas like “most creative” and “most marketable.”

“All of the teams did a great job,” Park said. “To me, everybody’s a winner.”

The new concentration in product development, launched at CSU last fall, bridges the gap between apparel design and merchandising and involves moving design concepts forward to create approved products for manufacture. Students study consumer and trend research, idea formation, product specification, materials procurement, prototyping, sourcing, quality assurance, pricing strategies and new business creation.

The Department of Design and Merchandising is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.