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Oxnard (CA) Firefighters Participate in Heart Attack Study

Oxnard (CA) Firefighters Participate in Heart Attack Study

Monday, 06 July 2009

By Adam Foxman, Ventura County Star

Heart attacks are the number one killer of on-duty firefighters in the United States, but despite volumes of research, scientists don’t know exactly why, or how they might be prevented.

With the help of the Oxnard Fire Department, a new, federally funded study hopes to begin answering those questions.

Financed with almost $1 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the two-year study by researchers at Skidmore College in New York is examining how physical fitness affects the way firefighters recover from battling blazes.

Researchers hope to find clues on when firefighters are most vulnerable to heart attacks, what kind of fitness would help and whether exercise is enough to prevent them, said Pat Fehling, one of the researchers.

The Oxnard department volunteered for the study, and researchers accepted partly because of its long-standing fitness program.

Led by Fehling and Denise Smith, both professors of exercise science at Skidmore College, the study monitored Oxnard firefighters on their daily routine from early March through early June. Researchers collected data on heart rates, respiration, skin temperatures and positions of about 35 Oxnard firefighters as they responded to fires and emergencies, slept and exercised.

Firefighters wore custom shirts with plastic monitors that tracked vital signs, taking them off only to shower. Called Physiological Status Monitors, the shirts are produced by Globe Manufacturing Co. and technology company Foster Miller.

Firefighters kept logs of their responses, as well as their sleep and workouts while wearing the monitors. At the end of their shifts, they downloaded the data from their shirts to computers.

Results are scheduled to take another year. Researchers have to analyze the dizzying amount of information they collected and complete laboratory tests involving East Coast firefighters.

One hypothesis by Smith and Fehling is that a physically fit firefighter has less of an adrenaline response and recovers from work more quickly than a firefighter not in good shape, making them less likely to have heart attacks.

Many firefighters around the nation lack adequate fitness, which may contribute to the high risk of on-duty heart attacks, according to a 2007 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Oxnard is among a minority of fire departments in the nation with established fitness programs.

But researchers still aren’t sure whether simple fitness is enough. About 100 U.S. firefighters a year die on duty, and 45 percent of those deaths are attributed to heart disease, according to the 2007 study. Despite fitness initiatives and other changes, those numbers have remained relatively stable.

Researchers might be able to provide specific recommendations about how long firefighters with different fitness levels should rest after battling a blaze, Smith said. “When they’re totally done with a fire, there are no rules about how long until they go to another fire.”

For Globe and Foster Miller, the study is an opportunity to test and develop the Physiological Status Monitor. The companies hope the shirts will ultimately signal when a firefighter is too stressed or overextended, said Mark Mordecai, Globe’s director of business development.

The companies got feedback from Oxnard firefighters about the discomfort of wearing the tight shirts with plastic monitors for long periods of time, and about problems downloading the data. Despite the challenges, however, Oxnard firefighter Jeff Donabedian said he and his colleagues were excited to participate.

“This is for the greater good of the fire service as a whole,” said Donabedian.

Alex Hamilton, another Oxnard firefighter who participated, said he hopes it will help authorities make policy decisions to keep firefighters healthy. When he worked to extinguish a recent garage fire, for example, Hamilton said, he saw his heart rate stay at 150 for about three hours. He wonders about the cumulative effect of such stress.

“Even being fit, that can’t be good for you,” Hamilton said.

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