Firefighters: Cooling Hearts, Staying Alive

FRESNO, Calif.

It is punishing. Blinding smoke, toxic fumes, and temperatures pushing 1,000 degrees. It's hot enough to melt a fire helmet. Then, add in 70+ pounds of protective gear.

"Like, anybody who has ever ran races and stuff like that, it's the same thing," Richard Dodds, a firefighter, told Ivanhoe. "You can feel your heart beating in your chest."

Eighty-two on-duty firefighters died in the U.S. last year. Four percent of those deaths were sudden cardiac arrest. Since 2004, it's accounted for 39 percent of all on-duty deaths.

"High heat levels, we know from other areas of research, make your blood coagulate faster," Dave Hostler, Ph.D., from the University of Pittsburgh, told Ivanhoe. "So, if you have what otherwise might have been a small heart attack, it could be a large heart attack."

In a burning building, body temperatures routinely hit 104 degrees, so researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are testing two, high-tech cooling techniques.

Specially-designed portable chairs have a pool of water in the arm rest.

"Because your arm is immersed in water from the elbow down, the blood in your veins, which is very close to the skin, exchanges its heat with the water and returns cool blood to the body," Dr. Hostler said.

Firefighters are also testing cooling vests like the ones used by Nascar drivers. Tubes pump icy liquid through material near the body's core to cool it down.

Experts are comparing body temperatures and heart rates for crews using both methods.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are still gathering results from their study. By the way, the control group in the study was a group of firefighters cooling down the old-fashioned way: by simply taking a break.

Dave Hostler, PhD
Dir., Emergency Responder Human Performance Lab
University of Pittsburgh
(412) 624-4141

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