Heat Treatment; photo of firefighters

When you’re battling uncontrollable fires in 50 pounds of equipment there’s a lot that can go wrong. Scientists have long tried to better understand how extreme temperatures affect firefighters’ recovery time, both physically and functionally, but haven’t been able to break through the last wall. Until now.

JoEllen Sefton, an associate professor in the Auburn University School of Kinesiology and director of Auburn’s Warrior Research Center, along with Kenneth Games, an assistant professor and director of the Tactical Athlete Research and Education Center at Indiana State University, hope to answer these questions with their research on 18 firefighters from the City of Auburn.

“We’re looking at whether exposure to heat, combined with exercise, is a problem functionally,” said Sefton. “It may affect balance, leading to increased risk of lower extremity musculoskeletal injuries such as ankle sprains and ACL tears, which account for about 60 percent of injuries on the scene.”

In the study, the firefighters are in full gear, consisting of 20 pounds of clothing and boots plus a 30-pound air tank, and they exercise in an environmental chamber for 40 minutes. Each condition is completed on different visits to the Thermal and Infrared Imaging Lab in the School of Kinesiology, run by David Pascoe. One condition involves walking at 3 mph at a 2.5 percent incline at 122 degrees Fahrenheit. The other condition involves standing in 122 degrees Fahrenheit. On a subsequent day, they walk 3 mph at a 2.5 percent incline at 64 degrees Fahrenheit as a control measure.

Auburn Fire Division Chief John C. Lankford said they are interested to see how heat stress can change firefighter function.

“Being exposed to heat can lead to overexertion injuries and possible cardiac events,” he said. “By measuring core temperature, blood pressure and other vital signs, we hope the data will help develop the best methods of rehabilitation after exposure. We’re always interested in making firefighters’ jobs safer and promoting health.”

Games is co-principal investigator on the project and is also a former doctoral student who studied under Sefton.

“We think heat plus work equals functional balance changes,” said Games. “We hope to develop interventions to improve the cooling protocols. With our research we can better determine if the physiological measures in the national guidelines are adequate for the safety of our firefighters.”

The study was jointly funded by Sefton’s Warrior Research Center and Indiana State. Games’ doctoral student, Zach Winkelmann, is assisting with the project, as are graduate students from Auburn including Jeremy McAdam, Kaitlin McGinnis and Jess Nendez. Jordan Devine, a senior undergraduate biomedical sciences major, is also part of the research team.