Human Systems Integration directorate helps fit body armor for female deployers

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- In the spring of 2016, several female medics assigned to the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, part of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s 711th Human Performance Wing, returned from deployments. One of the first stops was the Wing’s Human Systems Integration Directorate’s Anthropometry Lab to see what could be done about the fit of their body armor.

The currently-issued Improved Outer Tactical Vest doesn’t offer a female cut or size range and often leads to a poor fit for women. Over the course of a deployment, that poor fit can lead to discomfort, fatigue and even serious injury. The HSI Directorate reached out to the Army, the expert at armor research, development and procurement within the Department of Defense, and discovered they offer and issue a female pattern and size range of the IOTV -- already on the CENTCOM approved list.

“We asked if we could try the Female IOTV and conduct a task analysis for both fit and features,” said Brenda Crook, Aerospace Physiologist and Human Systems Integration Practitioner. “The Army was extremely supportive of working collaboratively.”

The Army’s Product Manager for soldier protective systems, to include body armor, told Crook they could loan the directorate sets of armor for the fit assessment and task analysis as well as to issue for deployment. All they asked in return was feedback on the fit, comfort and utility of the armor in theater, a major tenant of the Army’s soldier product support strategy.

“The Natick Soldier, Research, Development and Engineering Center, who designed the FIOTV, sent a team to train us on how to properly fit the FIOTV and to help conduct the task analyses,” Crook said. “With the help of female volunteers from USAFSAM and the 88th Air Base Wing Medical Group, we conducted a two-day ‘obstacle-course’-type task analysis to mimic triage and treatment using patient simulators. Both the volunteers and the ‘patients’ were in full gear, just as they would be in a deployed environment.”

Throughout the events, the directorate collected data on the fit and impact on task performance for female medics, a demographic which was lacking in the current Army FIOTV data.

“The response from our volunteers was overwhelmingly positive,” Crook said. “So with their feedback and the data we gathered, we went to Air Force Materiel Command about making the FIOTV available. With only two measurements required for sizing, the fit benefits are tremendous -- the protection of our Airmen is obviously most important. If we can improve the comfort and prevent injury, it’s a real win.”

AFMC agreed and has submitted a funding request to make FIOTV available for Air Force deployers.

“As many benefits as the FIOTV offers, there are still ways to make body armor even better,” Crook explained. “The Army is working on a scalable system, where you can add or take away layers -- and, therefore, weight -- as the threat situation requires. They hope to make it available in a couple of years. Our own Air Force Research Laboratory is also looking at advances in materials, such as flexible, buoyant armor plates, that could save considerable weight and conform better to the body shape. For all of our deployers -- female and male -- there is better fit and more comfort on the horizon.”

Crook said the directorate hopes to continue its collaboration across the Human Performance Wing and with the other services to capitalize on technology advancement as well as better understand and influence how those systems integrate with other mission gear and impact overall warfighter performance.