Assistance to Firefighters Grant Spotlight

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 AFG Spotlight

The Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) Spotlight is a feature of the AFG Program website, which focuses on topics that we think will be of interest to you. The AFG is a program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Send your thoughts or ideas for future topics to

An In-Depth Look At Firefighter Safety Research and Development Grants

Every day, firefighters risk their lives to protect their communities from fire and related emergencies. Unfortunately, firefighters experience more than 100,000 injuries per year in the performance of their duties, and an average of 105 firefighters die. In 2008, a total of 118 firefighters died in the line of duty, of which more than 50 percent were volunteers. More often than not the death was not caused by burns or smoke inhalation. A report from the U.S. Fire Administration1 states that the major cause of death among firefighters is a heart attack or stroke caused by the stress or overexertion of the job of firefighting. Sometimes the heart attack/stroke occurs while the firefighter is on duty; other times it occurs within 24 hours of having worked a fire or rescue.2

The Fire Prevention and Safety studies on firefighter safety and health correspond directly to the Administration's priority on research to help Americans live longer and healthier lives and to better protect troops, citizens, and national interests. "Scientific discovery and technological innovation are... indispensable for promoting economic growth, improving the environment, improving the health of the population and safeguarding our national security in the technologically-driven 21st century." Essential to securing the Nation's infrastructure and security is research to reduce the rate of injury and early death among citizen first responders--volunteer firefighters and emergency medical services technicians. They are the first to respond when fires, explosions, industrial accidents, and natural disasters threaten our communities.  

"Scientific discovery and technological innovation are... indispensable for promoting economic growth, safeguarding the environment, improving the health of the population and safeguarding our national security in the technologically-driven 21st century."

-- White House Memo on Science and Technology Priorities for the FY 2011 Budget, August 4, 2009

Firefighter standing in front of a water source and burning commercial building in the background with smoke in the air

Firefighters are the first to respond when explosions cause fires at industrial plants such as oil refineries; here a firefighter prepares to work inside the Gulf fire explosion perimeter in Puerto Rico, October 2009.

Photo by: Yuisa Ríos Cepeda/FEMA



Firefighter standing in front of a gas tank with smoke in the background

During and after natural disasters, firefighters work to control fires that threaten critical infrastructure. Here, jet fuel tanks burn out of control after a super typhoon hit Guam in 2002. The fires blocked a major harbor used to received Guam's gasoline supplies.

Photo by: Andrea Booher/FEMA


Fire Prevention and Safety Program: Research and Development Grants

Under the funding that has been provided for firefighter safety research and development (R&D) from the AFG's Fire Prevention and Safety (FP&S) Grant Program, a small group of researchers, scientists, and technicians have been working with firefighters on answering questions and developing strategies and technologies. These strategies and technologies ultimately will be put into practice to improve the lives of firefighters across the country. "The importance with regard to firefighter safety of the AFG Research and Development Grant Program cannot be overstated," says Steven Edwards, director of the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute. "Having academic research institutions engaged with providing knowledge and empirical data with respect to firefighter health and safety has tremendous benefit to individual firefighters and fire departments."

"The importance with regard to firefighter safety of the AFG Research and Development Grant Program cannot be overstated. Having academic research institutions engaged with providing knowledge and empirical data with respect to firefighter health and safety has tremendous benefit to individual firefighters and fire departments."

-- Steven T. Edwards, Director
    Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute
    University of Maryland


Research Topics Being Funded

The research funded by FP&S is helping to develop technologies and best practices that will prevent firefighter injuries and deaths.

At a meeting of the R&D researchers in early December 2009 in Baltimore, Maryland, researchers from all over the country met to share their research plans and to report on progress made. Since 2005, when the R&D grants were first added by the Congress, 36 FP&S-funded R&D projects have been undertaken in 14 states. Below are examples of several FP&S funded R&D projects that show promise for making a difference in improving firefighters' lives.


Stress and Overexertion

Grantee:  University of Illinois, Illinois Fire Service Institute
Principal Investigators:  Denise Smith, Ph.D., and Gavin Horn, Ph.D.

Research shows that when a firefighter dies in the line of duty, he or she is more likely to have died from a heart attack than from any other fire-related cause. One recently completed study funded by FP&S examined how firefighting activities cause stress on the heart and whether certain types of personal protective equipment (PPE) can help to reduce the stress. The grantee collected data from more than 100 firefighters, testing their heart rates and core temperatures after they performed firefighting activities. The researchers completed the project and disseminated their research results and recommendations at conferences and through articles in health research journals and fire service publications. Among their recommendations were the following:

  1. Firefighters should undergo initial and periodic medical examinations that specifically measure cardiovascular or heart health risk factors. To be effective, these examinations should be conducted by a physician who is familiar with the physical demands of firefighting.
  2. Firefighters who are extremely obese should not be allowed to perform firefighting duties because it is a risk factor for heart attacks.
  3. Fire departments should include defined cardiovascular standards in their hiring and recruitment requirements. For example, individuals who have high blood pressure or uncontrolled diabetes should not be allowed to become line firefighters until these risk factors have been treated successfully.              

"Firefighting is extremely strenuous physical work and is likely one of the most physically demanding activities that the human body performs..."

-- Firefighter Fatalities in the United States in 2008, USFA 2009  

Firefighters getting their vitals taken

Immediately before and after prolonged firefighting activities, several cardiovascular measures are assessed for the study on the effects of stress and overexertion among firefighters.

Source: University of Illinois, Illinois Fire Service Institute


Firefighter Monitoring Systems

Grantee:  Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Principal Investigator:  R. James Duckworth, Ph.D.

When firefighters run into a burning building to rescue someone, they enter smoke-filled, dark structures that they have never seen before. In the smoke and chaos of a building on fire, firefighters can become confused and lose track of the nearest exit, or even the location of the nearest firefighter colleague. In 2008 alone, at least 7 U.S. firefighters died in separate incidents after becoming trapped or lost while on duty in a building fire. To prevent these deaths from happening again, researchers are developing technologies to allow the incident commander, who is stationed outside the building, to monitor each firefighter's position while inside the building. They also will test technologies that can at the same time give readings on the physiological status of that firefighter that might indicate the firefighter is running out of air, or may be trapped or injured and unable to call for help. If the incident commander sees that a firefighter is in trouble based on the device readings, rescue teams can be sent to the exact location at once to retrieve the firefighter in trouble.


Firefighter getting geared up for a rescue mission

Firefighters from the Worcester Fire Department get ready to search for a "lost" colleague during a simulated rescue operation. They are using the Worcester Polytechnic Institute's 3D location, tracking, and physiological monitoring technology. The firefighter on the left puts a wireless pulse oximeter on his head; this device monitors the wearer's pulse, respiration, and blood oxygen level and sends the data to the incident commander. The rescue team members also wear prototype 3D location transmitters/antennas (white boxes) on their turnout gear, as does the "lost" firefighter for whom they are searching.

Source: Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Firefighter exercises - crawling up stairs to look for lost collegue

The rescue team crawls up the stairs to search for the lost firefighter. Their face masks are obscured to limit their vision in the same way that dense smoke would make it difficult for them to see in a real fire. Using the 3D location and tracking system, the rescue team was able to find the lost firefighter using only one tank of air--in other words, without having to exit the building to get replacement air tanks.

Source: Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Escape Rope Systems

Grantee:  University of Illinois, Illinois Fire Service Institute
Principal Investigator:  Gavin Horn, Ph.D.

Firefighters use rope systems to escape from buildings of several stories or higher. If these ropes break or slip, firefighters may fall and be seriously injured or killed. One FP&S study is testing various escape ropes and developing new technologies of ropes for firefighters to use. Their goal is to develop and prove the capability of types of rope systems that will hold and not fail when a firefighter must rely on that rope to escape a burning building.


Firefight at a window ledge outside, with a fire blazing inside

A firefighter uses an emergency escape rope system to exit a fire in a training structure.

Source: University of Illinois, Illinois Fire Service Institute


Firefighter Protective Gloves

Grantee: North Carolina State University, Center for Research, Center for Research on Textile Protection and Comfort
Principal Investigator:  Roger L. Barker, Ph.D.

Current protective gloves used by firefighters are made of bulky and stiff materials. The gloves are designed to shield their hands from burns rather than make it easy for them to handle tools and emergency equipment. Traditional researchers have used redesigning and testing methods that focused on swatches of the materials in the glove rather than the entire glove and its construction. Researchers at NCSU/T-PACC have developed the PyroHands® Fire Test System, a technical model to improve how firefighter gloves are redesigned and tested so that they not only provide adequate protection from burns but are less bulky, more flexible, and easier for firefighters to use.


Image of PyroHands - a pair of advanced protective gloves

PyroHands® is a new technology developed to better test and evaluate the performance of firefighter protective gloves.

Source: Photo by John Morton-Aslanis. Copyright 2008 NCSU/TPACC


Sleep Disorders Management: Translation to Practice

Grantee: Brigham and Women's Hospital
Principal Investigators: Charles Czeisler, M.D.; Steven W. Lockley, Ph.D.; and Laura K. Barger, Ph.D.

Researchers have been developing a new program to identify and treat sleep disorders among firefighters to improve their health, safety, and ability to function normally. Many firefighters work 24-hour shifts, and researchers have data that show fatigue and lack of sleep puts them at risk of serious injury and illness. With that information in hand, researchers have been doing tests to find the most effective way to educate firefighters about sleep management and the dangers of fatigue. Their goal is to find the most effective method of conveying the sleep disorder message to firefighters so that the method can be duplicated to reach firefighters across the country.

Fire departments around the country are Operation Stay Alert Banner - www.firefightersleep.orgparticipating in the Operation Stay Alert study, which is supported with a Fire Prevention and Safety grant.
Source: Harvard Work Hours, Health and Safety Group

Firefighters resting under the American flag

During emergencies, firefighters work around the clock and often get little sleep. Here, firefighters working at the site of the World Trade Center terrorist attack take time to rest under the American flag, September 2001.

Source: FEMA/Andrea Booher




Best Practices In Firefighting: An International Comparison and Evaluation

Grantee: University of Arizona
Principal Investigator:  Jeffrey L. Burgess, M.D., M.P.H.

Researchers plan to do a 3-year study among fire departments in the U.S., United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan to discover best practices that can minimize the number of firefighter injuries that occur at the scene of a fire. They will compare the rate of firefighter injuries by department; study the links, if any, between firefighter training and firefighters' willingness to follow standard operating guidelines, and identify best practices that will help reduce the number of injuries that occur among firefighters.

"It often takes year to see the practical results of research & development projects... But because of the fire service's willingness to participate in this critical research, we hope to see results more quickly than usual..."

-- Catherine Patterson, AFG Branch Chief

1 U.S. Fire Administration Firefighter Fatalities in the United States in 2008. FEMA September 2009.

2 The USFA report notes that the next most frequent causes of death were injuries resulting from vehicle accidents, being struck by something, falling, and being caught or trapped in a building. The total number of on-duty firefighter deaths in 2008 was 118.

3 Orszag, Peter, R., and Holdren, John P., White House Memo on "Science and Technology Priorities for the FY 2011 Budget," August 4, 2009.

Last Updated: 
02/18/2015 - 09:43
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