Research, Training DVD Give Volunteer Firefighters a Helping Hand

Indiana University researchers have created a training DVD to help these volunteers be as fit as possible when they answer the call to duty.


INDIANAPOLIS -- The work of volunteer firefighters is like few other jobs -- at a moment's notice they put their daily lives on hold and put their lives on the line fighting various sorts of fires. Indiana University researchers have created a training DVD to help these volunteers be as fit as possible when they answer the call to duty.

The data behind the DVD is based on federally funded research involving the gold standard of fire service: highly trained, medically supervised firefighters on the Indianapolis Fire Department. Through six months of groundbreaking study, IU researchers were able to document how firefighters' respiratory and cardiovascular systems responded to four primary aspects of firefighting. The DVD uses this data to show volunteer firefighters, who typically respond to a fraction of the calls answered by their professional peers, what to expect and how to best prepare their bodies for the challenge.

"Eighty percent of firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers," said Jim Brown, director of the Firefighter Health & Safety program and visiting scientist in IU's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. "In Indiana, volunteers are a representative sample of the general population. They have an extraordinary sense of civic duty. But they represent the general population and we know the general population isn't healthy."

Brown and his research team are mailing copies of the free DVD to volunteer fire departments across the state this month. The DVD also can be viewed in its entirety here. The DVD and research are funded by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Brown and firefighting authorities, including Indiana State Fire Marshal Jim Greeson and Larry Ketchem, president of the Indiana Volunteer Firefighter Association, discussed the new DVD during a press conference on Friday (Nov. 7) at the White River Township Fire Department south of Indianapolis.

The research project and DVD are geared toward helping firefighters understand the relationship between their work and over-exertion, which can lead to such life-threatening conditions as stroke and heart attack. Each year, about 100 firefighters die in the line of duty with around half of these deaths resulting from heart attacks caused by overexertion and stress. Brown said a disproportionate number of deaths involve volunteer firefighters.

In the study, they monitored firefighters' vital signs using vests embedded with sensors that continually monitor cardiovascular and respiratory systems. During fire calls, two firefighters wore thermal imaging cameras mounted on their helmets to collect video. Researchers travelled to fire scenes to record a variety of information, such as weather conditions and types of buildings encountered. They studied every aspect of the firefighters' performance, including posture and sleeping patterns.

One of the key findings was the surprisingly high level of cardiorespiratory stress firefighters experience even on "routine" fire calls. In some cases involving the rescue of victims, firefighters' heart rates were beyond what researchers thought possible.

"We couldn't take world class athletes and make them do that -- they couldn't work for 30 minutes at or above their predicted maximal heart rate, which is a prediction of how high your heart rate can get," Brown said.

The four components of firefighting -- fire attack, search and rescue, ventilation and overhaul -- involve a tremendous amount of lifting, carrying hoses and demolition equipment overhead, breaking through walls and ceilings and removing objects such as furniture and appliances.

"When they step off the truck they're wearing 70 pounds of gear. Everything they do is strenuous," Brown said. "There's lots of bending, stooping, pulling and lifting. You'll see with the exercises a lot of variation of body positions. Some exercises are performed upright and some involve bent positions, lying on their backs, seated."

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