Doctors helping firefighters chill out to stay alive

November 8, 2010

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Firefighters are dying on the job from preventable cardiovascular conditions.

Cardiac failure is the No. 1 killer of firefighters, accounting for close to half of the line-of-duty deaths in the past four years, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

A study released in March by the Harvard School of Public Health showed that firefighters on active duty face a heart attack risk up to 100 times greater than that of workers with non-emergency roles.

HAZARDS OF THE JOB: Coronary artery disease among firefighters is due to a combination of personal and workplace factors. The personal factors are well known: age, gender, family history, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, smoking, high blood cholesterol, obesity, and lack of exercise.

Not as widely known, however, is that firefighters have exposures to workplace factors that are associated with adverse cardiovascular outcomes. Consider the design of firefighter turnout gear and the vapor barrier technology that's designed to keep a firefighter cool. Much of that system is designed to pull heat from the body.

The human body needs to respond to heat stress by elevating heart rate and dissipating the heat. Fire crews say this is a brutal Catch-22 : the very equipment used to keep them safe must – by definition - be made of material that ultimately "zaps" their bodies of energy and water. (Source: NFPA)

COOLING IT DOWN: In extreme heat - and with several dozen pounds of gear - a firelighter's core body temperature can climb to more than 105 degrees. Now, scientists are researching how to help firefighters cool down without slowing down.

Due to the widespread use of synthetic building materials, urban fires now often burn two-to-three-times as fiercely as a typical fire.

One new technique helps firefighters when they're back out of the building. They can relax in a modified lawn chair equipped with body-cooling water pockets. These specifically portable chairs have a pool of water in the armrest. Because your arm is immersed in water, the blood in your veins exchanges heat with the water and returns cool blood to the body.

A second technique involves cooling vests used by NASCAR drivers. The system enables rehab teams to cool up to six firefighters at any one time by pumping water from a cooler through insulated hoses to individual vests, which contain 50 feet of capillary tubing each. It simply requires ice, water and 110 volts of electricity.

? For More Information, Contact:

Dave Hostler, PhD
Dir., Emergency Responder Human Performance Lab
University of Pittsburgh

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