FORT COLLINS, Colo. — If you watch firefighters marching toward a wildfire, you will likely see heroism, bravery, and grit. What you may not notice is the women rolling up their too-long pant legs and hiking up their waistbands as they work beside the men.
Their uniforms, which are technically made for women but are really just minimally altered men’s sizes, sometimes rub them in uncomfortable places, causing them to bleed and chafe. They struggle to keep their pants and sleeves folded up and the loose fabric regularly snags on brush. For shorter women, the crotch of the pants hangs near their knees. While battling to simply keep their garments in place, they work in difficult terrain and around volatile flames for days to weeks to months at a time, usually wearing the same shirt and pants almost daily.
That’s the reality for more than 10,000 women in wildland firefighting in the United States.
“And so, when you're performing a physically tasking job like that, you need to be comfortable. You need to be wearing something that fits you so you can move with ease. So, that's a huge, huge issue,” said Korena Hallam.
Hallam and Summer Hurd are out to change that as the co-founders of Green Buffalow, which is based in Fort Collins and named after an 1804 journal entry from Lewis and Clark in which a boy survived a wildfire after hiding under a green buffalo skin.
Armed with backgrounds in apparel, design and business development, the duo first came together in 2015 with a goal to create a meaningful project. Thanks to a tip from Hallam’s husband, who has been a wildland firefighter for 22 years, they started to look at firefighting uniforms as a whole to see if they could improve the fit while keeping comfort and practicality.
“But we quickly discovered that women are wearing uniforms that are made for men,” Hallam said. “And so, we shifted gears because we bootstrapped this whole thing. And we couldn't do both, unfortunately, but the need was much greater for the women in the industry.”
So, the years of research began.
“We're in our sixth year of Green Buffalow,” Hurd said. “But the first several years, it took us studying the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) regulations, and all of the fabrics and the threads and buttons and zippers — just everything that has to be composed of in the garment.”
They held focus groups and wear trials with female wildland firefighters, and listened to industry experts to learn more about the voids in the wildland fire uniform sizing space. That was where they learned about the depths of the problem — it wasn’t uncommon for women to seek doctors’ treatments for the severe chafing — and kindly corrected those who believed Green Buffalow merely wanted to upgrade the uniforms’ style by “bedazzling” the current attire, Hallam said.
The NFPA 1977, which outlines standard requirements for protective gear in wildland and urban interface firefighting, has a strict sizing guideline with specific measurements for apparel. Hallam said those sizes need updating, especially in the wake of recent technology and fabric advancements and enhancements. The last updates came in the late 1980s and early 1990s, she said.
Hallam and Hurd decided they could do it better.
Using the past years’ research and focus groups, they designed prototypes in Fort Collins together. They hoped to keep manufacturing in Colorado, but could not find a company available and with the necessary skill set. When they expanded their search nationally, they settled on a manufacturer in California.
Hallam and Hurd brought their idea to the male-dominated NFPA 1977 Committee in 2018, marking the first time a female-owned (and minority-owned) company had actively worked with them on sizing issues. The women introduced Green Buffalow as comfortable but fully functional uniforms for women, with plans to extend their product line to include men in 2022, since male firefighters had also expressed that Green Buffalow’s uniforms far surpassed what was, and still is, currently available.
“So, we brought to the committee a solution, because apparently it was an issue that they discussed during every meeting,” Hallam said. “And really, our solution was stepping outside of that box, and really looking at what can be implemented to help not only women, but men, to have better designs and perform their jobs better.”
The committee lobbed question after question after their presentation. Hurd and Hallam responded with detailed answers and scrupulous explanations.
About two years later, in August 2020, Green Buffalow launched its first products: the technical and athletic-fitting Aspen Shirt and Noble Pant.
The full women’s uniform includes a bright yellow shirt with 16 sizes, ranging from XS petite to 2XL, and dark green pants from XS up to XL. They’re chock-full of technical aspects from back-inverted pleats for unlimited arm movements to extra articulation around the knee for kneeling. The uniforms also feature upgraded basics, like higher-quality pockets and a more comfortable waistband.
The specialty threads are all fire-resistant (women cannot have their current uniforms custom-tailored, as tailors will use cotton thread, leading to a slew of safety issues).
“The days of chopping off the bottom 6 inches of a men’s small shirt and rolling the sleeves a million times are over!” one woman wrote in a review of the Aspen Shirt.
For two years, Green Buffalow sold almost all its inventory to federal, state, and local agencies, as well as individuals, through their website www.GreenBuffalow.com.
“Overall, I would say that our fit — we feel like we've really nailed that,” Hallam said. “And the feedback, it's just been phenomenal: 'Thank you so much for giving us a uniform that is actually made for us. It makes us feel so much better. And we're not having to wear stuff made for men, and we don't feel like clowns. And I can show up and look and feel professional, but I can also perform my job efficiently as well.'”
Now, Hallam and Hurd are in their third year of producing the uniforms. But demand greatly outpaces supply. It’s difficult to keep the uniforms in stock.
“We're still small enough that we haven't been approached by an investor,” Hallam said. “You know, we're not appealing to an investor. And so bootstrapping — it's not cutting it any longer for what we can afford and doing a few hundred pieces at a time. And like Summer said, we're just selling out so quickly. We need to have more inventory.”
To help bulk up their manufacturing and stock, they selected the funding marketplace IFundWomen, which supports women-owned businesses by providing an online fundraising option and connecting the entrepreneurs to investors.
With three days left in their current campaign, they have raised $14,525 of their $50,000 goal thanks to 27 funders. Hallam said they will get every dollar pledged so far regardless if they reach $50,000, which is a benefit of the IFundWomen platform. The total amount raised will determine the number of uniforms they can manufacture and sell.
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While this progresses, Hallam and Hurd are working on another front: getting Green Buffalow’s uniforms officially certified.
“Our stuff is not certified because we stepped out of the box,” Hallam said. “But we’ve been working with them to know where they’re moving toward. A lot of people just want something that fits so they can perform their jobs.”
The women are assisting one of the certifying parties with writing an addendum to the NFPA 1977 Standard on Protective Clothing and Equipment for Wildland Fire Fighting and Urban Interface Fire Fighting, and “once that’s done, we could easily get our stuff certified,” Hallam said. She added that the U.S. Forest Service said wildland firefighters have the freedom to purchase what they need if the standard uniforms do not fit. Once certified, Green Buffalow would fall under that category.
The company has even attracted the attention of top wildfire officials in Canada, who ordered a large supply from Green Buffalow for its own trials.
All the while in the background, the co-founders are working to advance the uniforms that many female firefighters are already raving about. Green Buffalow has partnered with North Carolina State University to use 3-D body scanning to analyze their designs for any shortfalls.
“Every day, it's an uphill battle,” Hallam said.
Some days, she looks back on the work she’s done with Hurd — on top of their day jobs and side jobs — and feels like crying out of something between pride and gratitude. And likely a little exhaustion. It’s been a long process amid the years of research, navigating committee meetings, and hearing praise from women in the field, and there is still lots of work to do.
But seven years in, they’re still fueled by the same fire that launched Green Buffalow in the first place.
“We constantly send emails and texts back and forth to each other from end users that wear our stuff,” Hurd said. “And we'll cry about it because they've been bleeding from their uniforms. And now they have something that fits, and they feel great, and they can perform their job better. That's just incredible to hear.”