AFG Fire Prevention and Safety Research and Development Study Compares
Firefighter Cooling Techniques: The Best Way to Cool Down
Firefighting is hot and exhausting work. In 20 minutes, or enough time to deplete a tank full of breathing air, firefighters leave a burning building feeling overheated and weary. To recover, and avoid life-threatening heat exhaustion and injuries due to fluid loss and heat stress, firefighters need to be cooled down immediately. Quickly lowering body temperature and increasing hydration can dramatically improve a firefighter's operational capability and safety. The question faced in this study was how best to cool down before continuing firefighting.
With an AFG Research and Development (R&D) grant, and other support, Dr. Dave Hostler, Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, and his research team addressed these cool down concerns. As Director of University of Pittsburgh's Emergency Responder Human Performance Lab and a life-long firefighter/paramedic himself, Dr. Hostler points out that "fireground rehab offers a critically important rest and cooling period after firefighting, or repeat bouts of firefighting. Many cooling methods were available but there was no evidence for what worked best. We set out to gather the evidence."
Study activities took place in the Emergency Responder lab and at the Allegheny Fire Academy's burn building, and involved various cooling scenarios. Cooling effects were compared for fans, forearm immersion in water, hand cooling, and water perfused cooling vests. Cool down with three fluids—cold IV saline, sports drinks, and water—was also tested. To test the cooling methods, participants engaged in simulated fire suppression activities/exercise, wearing full protective gear for 20 minutes. Then they entered rehab for 10 minutes where they had a randomly assigned cooling method. Leaving rehab, they repeated the controlled firefighting activity/exercise for 20 minutes. This sequence complies with present National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) rehabilitation guidelines.
In Hostler's study, participants were career and volunteer firefighters, average age 28, from the Western Pennsylvania area. Fire service study partners included the Allegheny Fire Academy, Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire, and Pittsburgh International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local No. 1.
The scientists took many measurements. Before and after each of the two bouts of exercise/firefighting, researchers measured hydration, heart rate, and body core and skin temperatures. They found, for example, that during rehab firefighters consumed, on average, 527 ml of fluid. Importantly, they observed that none could complete the exercise-rehab-exercise sequence, regardless of type of fluid. Core temperatures, heart rates, and exercise times during the second bout (post rehydration) did not differ by fluid type. Details of the study are available at the researchers' Web site at www.firefighterresearch.org.
There are two key findings from this research:
Fireground rehab can be equally effective when firefighters are fully hydrated with water, sports drink, or IV saline. The critical lesson learned is that firefighters need to come to work fully hydrated, stay fully hydrated, and use fireground rehab to replenish fluids.As a direct result of this study, fire departments are using Dr. Hostler's rehab protocols (available on the Web site) to guide effective cooling in fire training classes. Many more rehab units are being used on the fireground than ever before. Recommendations to NFPA for a change in the national rehab standards for firefighters are under consideration.
NFPA's standards for time spent firefighting and in rehab followed by return to firefighting may need to be modified for conditions involving strenuous activity, such as fire suppression.