Over the last three days, 12 firefighters and 10 instructors have been taking part in live burns as researchers collect data for a new study the effects of firefighter training on their health.
Teams from Skidmore College, UL’s Firefighter Safety Research Institute, The University of Illinois – Champaign and NIOSH have been taking part in the collaborative Cardiovascular and Chemical Exposure Project at the Illinois Fire Service Institute.
Firefighters from a dozen departments, including Hanover Park, Streamwood and Urbana in Illinois, FDNY, Boston and Chicago donned gear to take part.
While each scenario was laid out the same, the fuel load for each day was different. They include burning oriented strand board (OSB) or pallets and hay. The third is theatrical smoke combined with the BullEx digital fire attack system.
The evolutions include an incident commander, a four person engine company and three firefighters on a ladder company.
Monday’s burns were set up to simulate the typical live fire training at the IFSI–barrels stuffed with hay were ignited to produce blinding smoke and then fires were set in two rooms. Each room contained a bale of hay and three pallets.
While the ladder firefighters simulated forcible entry with a prop, the engine crew flaked out a 1 ¾-inch attack line and then crews made entry to knock the fires and locate two mannequins.
“We are here to understand how the training environment really impacts firefighters,” UL Director Steve Kerber said. “This will help us produce adequately equipped firefighters who can use the proper tools to get the job done.”
As the first fire was ignited, UL research engineer Robyn Zevtok kept his eyes on a large monitor that displayed 12 views from cameras set up around the structure, including six showing views of interior.
“We pretty much have eyes on every room to watch the smoke and fire changes as the firefighters work,” Zevotek said.
Another screen captured heat levels at various points throughout the structure and Zevotek kept notes as the temperatures changed. Data on heat flux and various gas concentrations were collected.
Data from the first burn on Monday showed temperatures around 850 degrees at the ceiling and it cooled down to 250 degrees at the floor before water was put on the fires.
Zevotek said they burned OSB manufactured wood the day before and their instruments recorded temperatures around 1,000 degrees at the ceiling and 300 degrees at the floor.
Nine team members from NIOSH were at the site collecting data from each participant before and after each scenario, along with monitoring the atmosphere inside and outside the structure.
They collected blood, breath and urine samples and swabbed the participant’s skin for to check for any exposure to contaminants, Kelsey Babik, an industrial hygienist with NIOSH said. “Fires are incredibly dirty and there’s a lot of material to collect…there is soot on everything, including the skin.”
The PPE was swabbed to see what containments stick to the gear and, Babik said, they were also looking for signs of off-gassing from fire retardant materials.
“We have a lot of people here,” Babik said, This is not what a NIOSH field study usually looks like.”
Small disks called pucks by researchers were worn by participants to collect heart and respiratory rates, and physical exertion levels. The estimated core temperatures were also measured and they were able to monitor it in real-time as each scenario unfolded.
“We can collect data before, during and after each fire suppression event and can monitor how the person’s body is reacting,” Skidmore College research assistant Jacob DeBlois said. “We want to make sure that we’re not pushing them too hard or too far.”
His initial observations from this week showed that the fastest increase in heart rate occurred when they entered the burn building, noting it could be attributed to the firefighter’s loss of vision in the smoke. The data is based on the individual’s age, fitness levels and work load.
As the third day of burns wrapped up, Kerber said the initial results were surprising.
“There were not as many differences as I might have expected,” Kerber said, referring to data showing the body’s initial reactions to the scenarios and how long it took to bring each scenario under control.
“This does mean the fidelity of the exercises was the same, no matter if it’s theatrical smoke or live fire.”
“Our number one charge is to impact the firefighter’s environment, including their health and safety and it requires research to this degree,” said Cleveland Battalion Chief Sean DeCrane, who works with the International Association of Fire Fighters.
“You learn new things as they pop up here,” said DeCrane, who also sits on the UL advisory board. “And, maybe there’s a new question that we will want to ask the next time we do this research.”
“The best part is that this industry came to us, we didn’t have to go to them like we do with industrial workers” Babick said, reflecting on her first time working with the fire service. “They have taken a vested interest in their own health and they want to be involved as this research project shows.”
Coverage of the 2016 Cardiovascular and Chemical Exposure Project brought to you by Globe.