Addressing Research Gaps in Cardiovascular and Exposure Risks on the Modern Fireground

By Gavin P. Horn, University of Illinois Fire Service Institute; Kenneth W. Fent, National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health; Steve Kerber, UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute; Mark Mordecai, Globe Manufacturing Company; Denise L. Smith, University of Illinois Fire Service Institute & Skidmore College

Fig1 - BlogAll of us in the fire service – and those connected to the fire service in our personal or professional lives – know how dangerous firefighting is. We know that firefighting increases the risk of sudden cardiac events and the long-term risk of certain cancers. Each year in December, when the NFPA releases their statistics on line of duty deaths, we are reminded that sudden cardiac events are the leading cause of duty-related deaths among firefighters in the U.S.  And, the risk of cardiac events is much greater after fire suppression activity.

The increased use of synthetic materials throughout the buildings we respond to has also added new dangers to firefighters. In addition to rapid increases in temperature during building fires, the combustion of synthetic materials, such as insulation, furniture, and carpeting, releases toxic chemicals into the air. The release of these chemicals – as both gasses and particles – can cause adverse health effects, increasing the risk of cancer, cardiovascular, and respiratory disease development.

What We Don’t Yet Know

Despite this evidence and considerable efforts to lessen cardiovascular disease and cancer risk in the fire service, there is still a pressing need to gather sound information on the effects of firefighting in realistic modern fire scenarios on cardiovascular and carcinogenic risk.

Until now, research on fire dynamics, toxic exposures, and cardiovascular strain has typically been conducted in independent projects with little integration. To make informed risk management decisions, the fire service needs rigorous scientific data describing the effects of firefighting in modern structures with realistic fuel loads on firefighter cardiovascular and cancer risk. It is also important to understand how these risks are affected by firefighting tactics, job assignment, and control interventions (such as gross on-scene decontamination).

Addressing the Research Gap

To address this gap in knowledge, a recent study was conducted at the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI) along with partners at UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute (FSRI), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and Globe Manufacturing Company.

The ‘Cardiovascular and Chemical Exposure Risks in Modern Firefighting’ study brings together expertise from these leading agencies in a single project that focuses on the intersection of fire dynamics, toxic exposures, and cardiovascular strain research and does so with a focus on modern fire service response scenarios.

Past fire dynamics studies have not had the opportunity to include firefighters – and the variability that the human element introduces ‒ as an integral part of the outcomes.  At the same time, most existing cardiovascular research studies have been conducted using training structures and fuel loads.  Only by combining the expertise of these different research groups, can we safely and effectively conduct a study that investigates firefighter exposure in a realistic condition that firefighters face. To support the current study, a fully instrumented single-story, ranch style structure was constructed on the IFSI training grounds in Champaign, Illinois, based on the well-studied structure developed and tested by UL over the past six years.

Research Methodology

Over this past summer, firefighters from departments across the U.S. traveled to Champaign to participate in this study. These firefighters were deployed in teams of 12 members conducting typical fireground functions, including Suppression, Search and Rescue, Command/Engineer, Outside Vent, and Overhaul. Each group of 12 firefighters took a run at the structure incorporating two different suppression tactics: 1) interior attack; and 2) a transitional attack approach. In all, 12 scenarios were conducted following response timelines that might be expected on the modern fireground, providing an incredible amount of data that until now did not exist.

In addition to data obtained before and immediately after firefighting, we also tracked changes in blood, vessels, cardiac electrical function, and contaminant levels for up to 12 hours after the firefight. This is an important component of the study given the number of sudden cardiac events that occur in the hours after emergency operations and the potential for ongoing exposure after the fire. The effectiveness of gross on-scene decontamination of PPE and skin cleaning on reducing exposure risk was also quantified as part of this study.

What’s Next

The research team is currently analyzing samples, studying data and statistically characterizing the results of this summer’s study. An interim report is slated for release in early 2016, while a detailed fire service toolkit will be released in 2017. The toolkit will be made freely available to firefighters and fire officers around the globe. In the meantime, you can keep up to date with information being released by: